During Sunshine Week, the annual reminder that open government is good government, Congress should shed some light on just who’s funding the nation’s presidential libraries.
Theoretically, a president could take the oath of office on a crisp January afternoon and begin accepting crisp $1,000 bills for his (or her) presidential library before the band starts warming up for the evening’s first inaugural ball.
So far, there’s no evidence anyone has behaved quite that crassly, but the business of raising funds for presidential libraries is a shadowy one. The nation’s chief executive is free to accept unlimited, undisclosed donations years before leaving office.
Friends and supporters of a president typically set up a foundation to raise millions for construction of a library. The buildings are later turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration, and operating expenses are paid with a mix of public and private funds.
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The foundations are opaque enterprises. The donor list, often kept secret, could be a who’s who of people with a vested interest in shaping administration policy and even include representatives of foreign governments.
Since 1999, Congress has debated multiple versions of a Presidential Library Donation Reform Act. The constraints on fundraising would be similar to those in place for campaign contributions. In 2007, lawmakers finally scored a partial victory –— registered lobbyists are now required to report donations of $200 or more.
But there are a lot more people than lobbyists who give, and the vast potential for influence-peddling remains.
This year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers therefore has renewed its battle for fuller disclosure. Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to require presidents and their foundations to disclose the identity of donors who give more than $200 and how much they gave.
This should be an easy call, given the number of questionable incidents that emerged from the shadows in recent decades. Among them:
▪ In 1993, President George H.W. Bush pardoned a man convicted of bank fraud, Edwin L. Cox Jr., whose father later made a major donation to Bush’s library.
▪ In 2001, President Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, who’d fled the country after being indicted for fraud and tax evasion; the pardon came after Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, donated at least $450,000 to Clinton’s library.
▪ In 2008, a Houston businessman raised eyebrows when he allegedly offered access to President George W. Bush in exchange for a donation to Bush’s library.
President Barack Obama, who voiced support for stricter controls on donations during his first run for the White House, voluntarily discloses donations to his library. But his list is short on specifics.
A clear, consistent reporting system — with a searchable, sortable database — should be legally required.
As part of their Sunshine Week celebrations the House and Senate should drag this practice out of the shadows.
As visitors to the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence and the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan., can attest, presidential libraries and museum complexes are fine additions to our nation’s understanding of its history. Future libraries would be even finer, though, if Americans could feel more confident that influence-peddling wasn’t part of the architecture.