Presidential Paper Chase
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One of the principal objections of members of the SMU community who are opposed to the location of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at the university is the president’s penchant for secrecy, as evidenced by his 2001 executive order that gives presidents broad powers to restrict public access to their papers and those of their predecessors on the grounds of executive privilege. Now a bipartisan group in the U.S. House of Representatives is backing legislation to overturn that order, according to an article in Friday’s Washington Post. I have been writing about the flap over the library since December, and while I think Bush’s executive order runs against both the spirit and the letter of the law in the Presidential Records Act, I also question some of the assertions in the Post article, which I have copied below, so that I can comment on it.
A bipartisan proposal targeting White House rules on the release of presidential papers would claw back power over public records from the executive branch, advocates of the bill say. The House measure, introduced yesterday, would overturn President Bush’s 2001 executive order adding layers of review before presidential papers are made public. Historians and archivists say the order has kept thousands of documents from public view.
Bush’s order “gave current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely,” Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a bill sponsor, said in a statement yesterday. Waxman’s co-sponsors include Reps. Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.), William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and Dan Burton (R-Ind.).
Bush issued the order after the White House held up the release of 68,000 pages of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library documents in 2001. Under the previous system, the president, former presidents or designees had 30 days to review documents and lodge objections. Bush added reviews by the families of former presidents to the process, and removed the 30-day deadline. He also broadened the rules to encompass vice presidential papers.
Thomas S. Blanton, chief of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, said that waiting time for documents from the Reagan Library has soared from 18 months to more than six years since the Bush order, because of the review process and factors such as understaffing at the National Archives.
Bush’s order “has added to the endemic problem of delay,” Allen Weinstein, the national archivist, said in his testimony. Since the order, White House review time has grown to approximately 210 days, he said. [end of article]
COMMENT: A previous effort to overturn the executive order failed while the Republicans were in control of Congress. Clearly, the measure has a better chance in a Democratic Congress, but it will surely face a presidential veto, and the thin Democratic margins in each house make it unlikely that a veto could be overridden. Prospects for a reversal of the executive order are slim unless the Democrats not only hold onto control of Congress but also have the White House–and even then, a Democratic president might find the limitations of Bush’s executive order to be beneficial to his or her own self-interest.
The article’s implication that Bush’s executive order is primarily responsible for the delay in the release of presidential records is unfair. I wrote about this cumbersome process in my column in the March issue of TEXAS MONTHLY. While it is true that Bush ordered 68,000 pages of Reagan records to be withheld, most of those have since been released. Here’s what I wrote and our fact-checkers verified: “[S]ince Bush issued his order, 1.8 million pages of recordshave been made public and only 64 pages have been withheld due to executive privilege.”
In fact, the real culprit is not presidential intransigence but rather the Presidential Records Act and the National Archives and Records Administration, which has responsibility for releasing presidential papers. The Act gives archivists five years after the end of a president’s term in office to organize them and prepare them for release. Only a fraction of a president’s paper trail can be followed in that time. After the five-year period expires, the only access to papers is through Freedom of Information Act requests. These can be extremely timeconsuming; David Alsobrook, who used to be the director of the Bush library at Texas A&M and now holds a similar position at the Clinton Library, told me of receiving a request for President Clinton’s daily calendar for eight years. The enormous backlogs created by FOIA searches leave little time for the important work of sorting and organizing papers. The National Archives and Congress could help by hiring and funding more archivists, but they haven’t done so. Compared to these obstacles, Bush’s contribution to the backlog is tiny. The Post article failed to give a true picture of either Bush’s record of withholding documents or the reason for “the endemic problem of delay.” It was either underresearched or biased, take your pick.