Disclosure of Presidential Library

Paul C. Light

Disclosure Of Presidential Library

Testimony Before The United States House Of Representatives
Subcommittee On Government Efficiency, Financial Management,
And Intergovernmental Relations, April 5, 2001

Paul C. Light, Vice President and Director, Governmental Studies

I am delighted to testify before this subcommittee today on
H.R. 577 and other pending legislation to require full
disclosure of contributions to presidential library funds. I
hardly need to remind this subcommittee of the perceived
linkages between promised gifts to President Clinton’s
library fund and the pardon process. Whether the stories are
ultimately proven true or false, the American public believes
there was a pro quo for the quid.

There is no question that Americans have been following this story. According
to The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press “news index” of
public attention in February, 28 percent of Americans said they followed the
controversy over the pardon process very closely, while another 32 said very
closely. The story garnered more interest than President Bush’s education
plan, the California energy crisis, the collision of a U.S. Navy submarine with a
Japanese ship, and the earthquake in India. Although this level of interest
pales in comparison to the 61 percent of Americans who said they were paying
very close attention to the rising price of gasoline last summer, it does suggest
that Americans know what has been going on.

This kind of coverage may help explain why so many Americans are
underwhelmed by the potential impact of campaign finance reform in restoring
public confidence in our democratic process. Although more than three
quarters of the American public (a) believes that campaign fund raising
practices are corrupt or unethical and (b) favors limits on contributions to
political parties, only 22 percent say that reforms would improve government
very much. Part of the explanation almost certainly rests in the public’s belief
that contributors will find a way around the limits one way or another.
Americans appear to believe that campaign money is like mercury—drive it from
one corner of the political process and it will migrate to another. I have little
doubt that most Americans would perceive contributions to the presidential
library funds as yet another way for contributors to influence policymaking.

This is hardly the first moment in recent history when Congress has
considered the need for disclosure of previously unregulated money. Congress
has been trying to regulate campaign contributions for the better part of a
century now, and may yet enact legislation this year to expand its regulatory
framework to cover so-called soft money.

Campaign finance is not the only area where Congress has regulated
contributions, however. In 1988, for example, Congress imposed disclosure
requirements on contributions to presidential transition foundations for the
express purpose of eliminating the appearance of conflicts of interest in
advance of a president’s inauguration. The Senate Governmental Affairs
Committee became concerned about the pre-election period precisely because
of what were perceived to be large amounts of unregulated, undisclosed
contributions to the 1980-1981 Ronald Reagan presidential transition fund.
While the Committee did not believe there had been any corruption or quid pro
quo, it did conclude that the presence of undisclosed funding at such a
sensitive moment in presidential time merited review.

It is important to note that the question before the Committee in 1988 was not
whether contributors had purchased influence from the about-to-be-inaugurated
Reagan administration, but whether the American public could draw the
inference, however poorly grounded, that undisclosed contributions were
somehow tainting the transition. It was out of concern for the perception of
improper influence that the Committee acted unanimously to impose new
regulations on what had been an entirely private, and heretofore, exempt
source of funding. The 1988 act imposed three disclosure requirements and
one contribution limitation on such transition funding, and, in doing so, closed
the gap in disclosure between the end of the presidential election campaign
and the beginning of the presidential administration:


The act requires the President-elect and the Vice President-elect to disclose
to the Administrator all private money received for use in their preparation for
the assumption of official duties, and requires the Administrator to make such
disclosures public.

The act requires the President-elect and the Vice President-elect to disclose
the names of all transition personnel, including their most recent employment
and source of funding, thereby addressing “in-kind” support. The act also
requires public disclosures of this information to be made before the initial
transition team contacts a Federal department or agency.

The act requires the President-elect and Vice President-elect to provide an
estimate to the Administrator of the aggregate value of in-kind contributions
made between the election and inauguration, which were received for transition
planning purposes for: (1) transportation; (2) hotel and other accommodations;
(3) office space; and (4) furniture, furnishings, office machines and equipment,
and office supplies. Requires the Administrator to make such information
available to the public.

Finally, the act prohibits the President-elect and the Vice President-elect from
accepting more than $5,000 from any person, organization, or other entity for
transition purposes.

Under the act, the president- and vice-elect are required to disclose these
contributions as a condition of accepting federal funding and support. Just as
presidential candidates agree to contribution limits and disclosure in return for
public financing, the President- and Vice-President-elect waive the traditional
privacy protections given to 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations in return for
transition funding and the operating support of the General Services

I believe a similar spirit should prevail regarding contributions to the presidential
library funds. If there is good reason to disclose and limit contributions to the
presidential transition funds, surely there is equally compelling reason to
disclose and limit contributions to the presidential library funds. In this regard, I
do not believe H.R. 577 goes far enough in three respects:

First, I believe disclosure of contributions to the presidential library funds
should be clearly linked to the provision of services by the National Archives
and Records Administration. If presidents want their papers to be housed and
maintained in their libraries, they must accept the limits on privacy for their
donors. If the president rejects such limits, the National Archives and Records
Administration could easily house the records here in Washington.

Second, I believe H.R. 577 should define the term “funds raised for the creation
of a Presidential archival depository” more clearly to include pledges to be
honored after an administration leaves office. As currently worded, the bill
creates a substantial loophole that may encourage the very fundraising it
seeks to limit. Indeed, pledges may create an even greater perception of
conflicts of interest based on future behavior.

Third, I believe H.R. 577 should seek to limit contributions to the library funds
of some amount not to exceed some reasonable amount such as $50,000.
While acknowledging the difficulties of raising money for presidential libraries,
and the need for large gifts to sustain such capital campaigns, the presence of
huge gifts and pledges, no matter how well disclosed, will continue to create
the appearance of potential quid pro quos.

Ultimately, the easiest way for Congress to completely eliminate the need for
disclosure and limits on presidential library funds is to provide federal dollars
for this purpose. It seems reasonable to suggest that the federal government
has some interest in providing taxpayer funds for the express purpose of
constructing safe repositories for presidential papers and associated
mementos of an administration. The only caveat in doing so comes from the
mercury-like behavior of contributions. Sooner or later, contributors will find a
way to make their presence felt. The best Congress can do is to make sure
that their presence is both revealed and limited. H.R. 577 and similar
legislation in the Senate provide reasonable first steps toward this necessary