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H.R. 1063 (116th): Presidential Library Donation Reform Act of 2019


Should donations to presidential libraries be publicly disclosed, or allowed to remain private? The Presidential Library Donation Reform Act would change the current system.

Context

Every president since Herbert Hoover in the 1930s has had a post-White House presidential library built in their honor, essentially a museum telling the story of their life and presidency in (of course) very favorable terms.

These libraries' costs have surged in recent years, with Bill Clinton's in Arkansas costing $165 million, George W. Bush's in Texas costing $250 million, and Obama's library which is slated to be built in in Illinois will cost an estimated $500 million.

Presidents can begin raising money for these libraries while still in the White House, with little to no public transparency requirements. As some have noted: "Any person, corporation, or foreign government can donate any amount, unreported, while a president is still in office."

For example and perhaps most controversially, Denise Rich donated $450,000 towards Bill Clinton's presidential library while he was still in office; Clinton then pardoned her husband Marc-Rich on the final day of his presidency.

What the bill does

The Presidential Library Donation Reform Act would require any donations to a presidential library above $200 be publicly disclosed.

It was introduced on February 7 as bill number H.R. 1063 by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD7), Chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

What supporters say

Supporters argue that more openness in this process will help the public recognize who is trying to buy influence or support with a president while in office.

The bill would "make the process of raising money to build presidential libraries more transparent," Rep. Cummings said in a press release. "Right now, a president — while still in office — can raise unlimited amounts of money for a presidential library from private donations, and the identities of all the donors can remain secret. It is time to enact this bipartisan legislation to require the disclosure of donor information."

The other side of the aisle supports the legislation too, as the committee's top Republican Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC11) said.

"More transparency in politics is a goal we should strive for on a bipartisan basis, and that's exactly what this bill achieves," Rep. Meadows said in a press release. "Given residents can lawfully solicit unlimited donations for their libraries while still in office, the public should be able to know basic information about these donations — just as they can with their representatives."

What opponents say

Opponents counter that such disclosure would be a violation of free speech protections.

"Any demand for a list of our donors would be flagrantly violative of the First Amendment and we would resist it," Clinton Foundation lawyer David Kendall told the Washington Post at the time that the scandal involving Denise Rich's donation broke.

Opponents also note that the $200 threshold for public disclosure may be too low.

"Many of the people making a donation of $200 or more aren't doing it to buy influence — they want to preserve history," the political debate website Countable notes. "It seems unfair to treat a $200 donation the same as a $200,000 donation."

Odds of passage

The bill passed the the House Oversight and Reform Committee on February 11 by a voice vote, a procedure usually used for uncontroversial legislation meaning no record of individual votes were cast. It now goes to the full House.

Previous versions passed the full House with no recorded opposition in 2017 and in 2016, only to receive no votes in the Senate. So it remains unclear whether that chamber would take it up during this Congress, even if it was to pass the full House.

Last updated Feb 25, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Feb 11, 2019.


Presidential Library Donation Reform Act of 2019

This bill requires each presidential library fundraising organization to submit quarterly reports to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on every contributor who gave the organization a contribution or contributions (whether monetary or in-kind) totaling $200 or more for the quarterly period.

NARA shall publish such information on its website within 30 days after each quarterly filing.

It shall be unlawful for contributors or fundraising organizations to knowingly and willfully submit false information or omit material information.