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Corruption in the Presidential Library?

Donations that exceed $200 in the aggregate must be itemized and reported to the Federal Election Commission…Updated 1/8/09

  • Zachary Proulx
January 8, 2009

Cross-posted from The Hill Blog.

Current campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to $2,300 each election for a federal candidate. Donations that exceed $200 in the aggregate must be itemized and reported to the Federal Election Commission, adding transparency to our federal election process. Unless, of course, these contributions go towards a presidential library. Unlike donations to presidential campaigns, checks to presidential libraries can be, and have been, written for tens of millions of dollars. They may come from foreign governments, corporations, and unions, and can be collected even while a president holds office. Even more troubling, large benefactors are free to remain anonymous. In short, the funding of presidential libraries could not be more opaque.

On Tuesday, the Bureau of National Affairs (subscription only) reported that the newly-convened 111th Congress is set to contemplate much-needed reforms to the system as early as this week. The House will reconsider the “Presidential Library Donation Reform Act of 2007” (H.R. 1254), which would require that all organizations established to raise funds for presidential libraries disclose contributions of $200 or more on a quarterly basis. Additionally, donations would be reported to the National Archives and the information made available to the public at no charge.

The act was introduced by Rep Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in March of 2007 and passed the House by a landslide vote of 390–34. The legislation was held up in Senate committee by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), however, who argued that the bill would unfairly force President Bush to disclose donors midstream through the fundraising process. Although the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee eventually approved the measure, it never received a vote on the Senate floor.

In light of public distrust of government and the recent string of political scandals involving quid pro quo deals, Congress would be wise to ensure smooth passage of the bill, which has already garnered bi-partisan support. In her testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2007, Sheila Krumholz, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, remarked that disclosure requirements will help to “minimize the potential for that sort of payback, and to build trust among a citizenry that already questions the ethics of elected officials.”

Indeed, without reforms to the presidential library donation process, opportunities for abuse by those soliciting donations run rampant. In July, the House Committee on Oversight began investigating former Homeland Security Advisory Council member Stephen Payne after the Times of London surreptitiously filmed him offering access to the administration figures in return for a six-figure donation to President Bush’s nascent library. Payne, a lobbyist with close ties to the administration, met with an undercover Times reporter and a Kazakh politician who purported to represent the interests of the former president of Kyrgyzstan. For a $600,000 to $750,000 payment to his lobbying firm, $250,000 of which would be donated directly to Bush’s presidential library, Payne stated that he would attempt to arrange meetings between the former president and top administration officials. Payne denied any wrongdoing in the matter, but was asked to resign from the advisory council.

And with fugitive financier Marc Rich back in the news as of late, who can forget about the blemish left on Clinton’s presidential library? After Clinton granted Rich a pardon at the 11th hour of his presidency, it came to light that Rich’s ex-wife had pledged $450,000 to Clinton’s $165 million library in Little Rock, setting off a firestorm of accusations that Rich’s pardon had been purchased. And like his predecessor, Clinton raked in about $10 million for his facility from the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

With the price tag for President Bush’s library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas set at a record $500 million, fundraising for which is already underway, it is high time that the public finally have an opportunity to see where the money is coming from. A $2,300 contribution limit is important in stemming quid pro quo corruption, but it should not be undermined by donors’ ability to offer a $1 million pledge for a presidential library to a sitting president.

Update 1/8/2009: In one of their first legislative actions on the job, the House passed the “Presidential Library Donation Reform Act of 2009” yesterday by a wide margin of 388–31. After passage of the new bill, H.R. 36, Speaker Nancy Pelosi observed that “Americans deserve a government that is open, honest, and accountable to its citizens. Today, we continue our reform efforts by ensuring meaningful and timely access to presidential records and the disclosure of big money donations to presidential libraries.” Hopefully, her Senate colleagues will feel the same way and properly consider the legislation this time around.