Why Presidential Records Must See the Light of Day

by LARAY POLK

There is much concern over SB 866, the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007. Librarians, historians and archivists from around the country have issued position statements regarding the bill and have worked diligently to keep it moving.

SB 866 would rescind President Bush’s Executive Order 13233, an order that renders the Presidential Records Act impotent. What’s all that mean? White House records that would have been slated for the public domain when President Bush entered office are now under his full discretion to censor — indefinitely. EO 13233 extends these powers to his heirs.

It is commonly known but worth repeating that inherited power, written into U.S. law, is illegal and antithetical in a democracy.

Two and a half weeks ago, the possibility of the bill reaching the floor before December looked hopeful. Aides in various offices said it had been reviewed on the Senate floor and assigned a number: Calendar No. 212. Once a bill is given a number, it can be brought to the floor for a vote by any senator or the majority leader.

Then, on Sept. 19, The Dallas Morning News reported that an anonymous senator had put a hold on the bill. But on Monday, under the stewardship of Democrats, SB 866 was introduced on the floor. Republican Sen. Jim Bunning raised objections and stalled the bill.

Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman is the sponsor of 866. Five days ago, an aide in Mr. Bingaman’s office identified the senator who requested the hold: Republican Sen. Tom Coburn. I inquired further as to how he knew this with certainty. He replied, "Because Sen. Coburn is working directly with Sen. Bingaman to negotiate some items in the bill."

SB 866, with its declared supporters and its semi-anonymous and proxy detractors, could appear to split along the partisan divide. In reality, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn is a co-sponsor of the bill and has been an outspoken advocate. The other co-sponsors are Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy and Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John Sununu.

This legislation resonates loudly here at home. Professors within the history department at Southern Methodist University, the future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, may not all agree on the benefits or legitimacy of the library, museum and institute. However, they unanimously agree about SB 866 and the need to rescind the presidential order.

They released a cooperative statement Feb. 8, stating the basis of their concerns: "We believe that the greatest benefit to SMU of having a presidential library will be to make the university a center of serious research on matters of the highest public import. We recognize that the records of this administration will be of immense historical and civic interest. … We do believe that all material in all presidential libraries, including the Bush Library, should be open to full access in accord with the letter and the spirit of the Presidential Records Act."

The obvious solution to getting this bill to the floor for meaningful discussion is for a Republican senator to take the lead; solidarity for SB 866 clearly exists across party lines. The time is now to shrug off details of identity and stand up for the integrity of the issues at hand.

What are the consequences of an ongoing stalled process of this legislation? Vice President Dick Cheney will have quietly shown us once again the lessons he learned from the Nixon fiasco: how to increase executive power while simultaneously shutting down any chance of public scrutiny. No records, no recourse and a presidential library of questionable legitimacy in Dallas.

LARAY POLK is an artist and activist who lives in Dallas,Texas. Her e-mail address is laraypolk@earthlink.net.

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