With all of the spectacle and controversy surrounding the recent inauguration of the incoming President, Donald Trump, it was easy to miss the passage of then-President Barack Obama’s final law. Minutes before the inauguration, Obama signed the “Tested Ability to Leverage Exceptional National Talent Act of 2017” (Talent Act), codifying the existing Presidential Innovation Fellows program. But it almost didn’t happen.
The Presidential Innovation Fellows program was founded in 2012. The program is designed to attract the nation’s brightest technological minds and place them in various government positions in order to affect positive change. The official Fellows website explains, “This highly-competitive program pairs talented, diverse technologists and innovators with top civil-servants and change-makers working at the highest levels of the federal government to tackle some our nation’s biggest challenges.” The incorporation of the Fellows alongside current workers is key, explains Sen. Mark Warner, stating, “This program provides an opportunity for this country’s top talent to bring their diverse and innovative experience to the federal workforce, without displacing change-makers within government.”
Fellows with backgrounds in fields like marketing, programming, design and cyber-security are chosen from various industries and are placed in numerous government agencies, including the Department of Energy, FDA, IRS, and NASA. The fellowship term can range from six months to two years, but is typically a one year commitment. Previous and current Fellows have worked on projects from the Healtcare.gov website to the “cancer moonshot,” headed by Vice President Biden, to digitizing the Smithsonian Institute’s herbarium. Future potential projects include: next generation air traffic control, expanding broadband access to underserved areas, and improving the foster care system.
On August 17, 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order, making the Presidential Innovation Fellows program a permanent fixture of the federal government—well, kind of permanent. As we have seen from the first few weeks of the Trump presidency, as well as throughout history, an Executive Order is easily removed by a new Executive Order, and new Presidents often undo the work of those before them.
And thus began a mission by “a band of technophiles from both sides of the political aisle” to pass legislation that would cement the Fellows program into law.
But the clock was ticking. The Talent Act failed to make it through the 114th Congress and had to be reintroduced in the current 115th. The bill, H.R.39, passed the House 386-17. Then, on Tuesday, January 17, three days before the inauguration, “the Senate passed an identical companion bill by unanimous consent.” However, the physical bill did not arrive to the Senate until the afternoon of the 19th (just one day before the inauguration). On Friday, January 20, the bill still lacked the President’s signature. And so, on the morning of the inauguration, John Paul Farmer, one of the co-founders of the Fellows program, found himself scrambling to get the physical bill to the White House before President Obama was President no more. Miraculously, Farmer managed to coordinate an impromptu signing in the Capitol holding room, just steps away from the balcony where Obama would watch the inauguration. And just like that, “at 11:07 AM on January 20, 2017, the Talent Act became law.” At 12:00 PM, the clock expired as Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. Talk about a buzzer-beater.