Senate Panel Clears Presidential Records Bill

On April 1, without any debate, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee by voice vote cleared an amendment in the nature of a substitute to the “Presidential Records Reform Act of 2009,” (H.R. 35). The bill is now ready to go to the Senate floor for consideration after the upcoming congressional recess.

On January 7, 2009, the House of Representatives approved the original H.R. 35 by an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote of 359-58. While the two versions of the bill are very similar, there are some differences that will need to be worked out between the House and Senate either in conference or informally before the bill can ultimately be enacted.

The major difference is the length of time the incumbent and former-president have to review any records upon notice of intended release by the Archivist. The House bill had a 20-day review period with the possibility of an extension for an additional 20 days. The Senate bill changes those time frames to 60 days for the initial review with a 30 day extension. So the total review period goes from 40 days in the House to 90 days in the Senate.

The Senate substitute also includes language from the House-passed bill requiring the Archivist of the United States to deny access to original presidential records to any designated representative of a former president if the designee had been convicted of a crime relating to the review, retention, removal, or destruction of records of the archives. The bill language was inspired by the well-publicized theft of documents from the National Archives by President Clinton’s former National Security Advisor Samuel R. (Sandy) Berger. On April 1, 2005, Berger pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified documents.