Of Note: Rep. Elijah Cummings reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to to require presidential libraries to disclose their donor information and therefore bring conflicts of interest to light. When previous sponsor Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) introduced this bill in the 113th Congress in 2013, he said:
“Presidential library fundraising organizations are formed while a president is in office and collect donations from individuals, corporations and foreign governments with no limit on the contribution amount. When there is no requirement for disclosing the donor or the amounts being donated, there is great potential for abuse... This is not a partisan issue. I introduced and have supported this legislation under both Democratic and Republican presidents."
After this bill passed the House last Congress, Rep. Duncan added:
"The public should be made aware of possible conflicts of interest that sitting presidents can have or may have while raising funds for their libraries. We do not know who these donors to the presidential libraries are or what interests they may have on any pending policy decisions that are to be made."
The Sunlight Foundation, which supports this bill, argues that presidential libraries are currently the "Wild West" of political fundraising:
"Firstly, donor names should be required to be disclosed. Relying on voluntary disclosures means that the rules are flexible and there are no consequences for omission. The public has a need to know this kind of information. Second, donor names should be online in a machine-readable format. Making paper copies available at a distant library at 10 cents a page is a laughable form of transparency. We easily should be able to take the donor names and compare them against lists of pardon-seekers, lobbyists, and campaign-donors. Finally, donor names should be disclosed in a timely fashion. George W. Bush has been out of office for five years, and the corruption-deterring value has attenuated with time’s passage. Being able to see whether there’s a relationship between donation and presidential action is invaluable. While we would prefer even more frequent reporting, [this] bill’s requirement of quarterly reporting is a huge step forward. Presidential libraries are the wild west of presidential fundraising. It takes place when presidents are the least accountable and involves tremendous amounts of secret money. Now’s the time to fix this loophole."
Issue One adds that this bill brings much-needed transparency to the presidential library donation process, ensuring that the public knows whether these institutions are being used for influence peddling:
"[This] legislation would bring much-needed transparency to the process of funding these repositories of important parts of our national history. The public deserves to know if these institutions are turning into pathways for favors and influence peddling."
to presidential libraries have been under scrutiny since the Clinton
administration. In 2000 it was discovered that Denise Rich donated $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library
prior to President Clinton pardoning Ms. Rich’s husband who was wanted
on 51 counts of tax and mail fraud, racketeering, and illegally
violating a trade embargo with Iran.
During the George W. Bush administration, a former lobbyist suggested that a foreign politician should make a $250,000 donation to the Bush library
in order to secure meetings with senior members of the administration.
Currently, the Obama Foundation — which raises money for President Obama’s presidential library — only provides ranges for the amounts of donations it has received.
This bill has one cosponsor in the current Congress, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC). Last Congress, Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) introduced this bill with one cosponsor, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and secured its passage in the House by voice vote. This bill has historically had the support of the Sunlight Foundation, Demand Progress, the Center for Responsive Politics, and others.
In-Depth: This legislation has a long — if unsuccessful — history in Congress. Previous versions passed the House in 2002, 2007 (when it was blocked in the Senate), and 2009. It was introduced in the House in 2013, where it survived committee but did not see a floor vote, and it was introduced in the Senate in 2014 only to meet a similar fate.
Under current law, presidential libraries are built with private funds, then turned over to the National Archives to administer with a mix of public and private money. The private money can be raised in any amount, from any source, including foreign governments and people or companies seeking government favors. Since there aren't any disclosure requirements, donors' identities remain secret. However, since sitting presidents can begin fundraising for their libraries long before leaving office, this presents a major opportunity for corruption.
Media:Summary by Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: Flickr user FDR Presidential Library & Museum)