Senator Stevens Blocks Consideration of Presidential Library Disclosure Bill

On February 26, 2008, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) attempted to bring the “Presidential Library Donation Reform Act” (H.R. 1254) to the Senate floor under unanimous consent. However, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) objected to consideration of the bill unless an amendment was adopted applying the disclosure requirements to administrations serving on or after January 21, 2009. The effect would be to exempt President George W. Bush from the more stringent reporting rules that cover library funding for the current and future presidents under the bill.

The legislation would require presidential library fund-raising organizations to disclose to Congress and the Archivist the amount and date of each contribution, the name of the contributor, and if the contributor is an individual, the occupation of the contributor.

The issue of transparency of donations to presidential libraries has recently come to the fore in Senator Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) race for the White House. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) has called on former-President Clinton to voluntarily release a list of donors to his library foundation. The issue had dogged President Clinton since he pardoned commodities trader Marc Rich, who was then a fugitive, on his final day in office. It was later revealed that Rich’s former wife Denise had made a $450,000 donation towards the building of Clinton Presidential Library.

On March 14, 2007, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 1254, the “Presidential Donation Reform Act of 2007,” by a vote of 390-34. On August 1, 2007, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the legislation after making some major changes to the bill to address the issues of fundraising by the foundations for existing presidential libraries.

The bill passed by the Senate panel would make changes from the House-passed version with regard to the triggering amount of a donation requiring disclosure and the length of time the presidential library must report contributions. Both the House and Senate bills require the National Archives to make the donation information available to the public through a free, searchable, and downloadable database on the Internet.

Under the House-passed legislation, organizations fundraising for presidential libraries would be required to disclose their donations while the president is in office and during the period before the federal government has taken possession of the library. The bill sets a minimum reporting period of four years after the end of a president’s term. The bill would require that all organizations established for the purpose of raising funds for presidential libraries or their related facilities report on a quarterly basis all contributions of $200 or more.

The version passed by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee retains this requirement. However, the Senate legislation additionally requires presidential libraries that have already been accepted by the Archivist into the federal system must report all contributions of $1,250 or more received quarterly. This new requirement would apply proactively to donations made to the fundraising organizations for the sitting president, and all former presidents living at the time the law was enacted. The reporting requirement would end upon the death of a former president. Concerns were expressed that requiring the reporting requirements to apply retroactively would have created an administrative nightmare for some of the older presidential libraries.

Presidential libraries are built using private funds raised by organizations working on behalf of the president. Donations for the presidential library can be unlimited in size and there is no disclosure requirement under current law. Organizations that raise funds for presidential libraries typically begin fundraising while the president remains in office. Before the library is turned over to the National Archives, these organizations must raise enough money to build the library and to provide the Archivist with an endowment for the maintenance of the facility. One of the concerns the bill is designed to remedy is the fact that foreign nationals can make unlimited contributions to a sitting, or former, president’s library. This is in contrast to federal election laws that prohibit contributions by foreign nationals.