Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Presidential Records Reform Act

Late this afternoon, an e-mail from SAA Executive Director Nancy Beaumont regarding the Presidential Records Reform Act (H.R. 35), the very first piece of legislation passed by the 111th Congress, started making the rounds. What happy news!

According to the National Coalition for History (NCH), which along with the Society of American Archivists and a number of other groups has pushed for legislation of this type, the Presidential Records Reform Act addresses a wide range of issues and concerns arising from President Bush's issuance of Executive Order 13233 in November 2001. Most notably, if the law makes it through the Senate and is signed by the president:
  • Former presidents will no longer be able indefinitely to delay the release of records covered by the Presidential Records Act;
  • Relatives, heirs, and designees of presidents will no longer be able to make executive privilege claims on a president's behalf;
  • Vice presidents will no longer have the right to assert executive privilege.
As the NCH notes, this legislation would restore records access and executive claim provisions that were, for the most part, set in place in an executive order issued by President Reagan.

The bill also addresses another records-related issue completely unrelated to Executive Order 13233. If passed, it
would also require 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" held by the National Archives.
This "Sandy Berger" provision is largely symbolic, of course, but it warms my heart; I've always believed that Berger should have done some jail time, and I'm glad that his infamy endures.

The NCH emphasizes that the Presidential Records Reform Act still has to clear the Senate, which despite Senator Joe Lieberman's concerted efforts has refused to pass other bills dismantling Executive Order 13233, and the White House. However, as the NCH notes, the composition of the Senate has changed, at least some Republican senators who formerly opposed such legislation may switch sides on the issue, and the President-elect is on record as supporting the revocation of Executive Order 13233.

Here's hoping that the bill text isn't diluted, quickly makes it through the Senate, and is among the first pieces of legislation signed by the new President.

No comments: