From The Coalition Column of the November 2004 Perspectives

NCH News Briefs, November 2004

Bruce Craig, November 2004

Nixon Library to Get Earmarked Funds

The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation has successfully lobbied the House Appropriations Committee to allocate $500,000 for "technical assistance" (that is, planning and design efforts) to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to enable this private library to meet federal standards so that it can join the presidential library system.

Traditionally, and consistent with provisions in the Presidential Libraries Act (PLA), an outgoing president raises private funds to cover 100 percent of the anticipated costs to plan, design, and construct a presidential library/museum. Provided the facility built meets National Archives construction standards, the private foundation that raised the funds then donates it to the government to operate. In addition, often a substantial endowment is turned over to help offset anticipated ongoing maintenance costs.

Since its creation, however, the Nixon presidential library has been a departure from tradition. Shortly after President Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal, he challenged the government’s authority over what the president considered his "private" papers. Following years of litigation, ultimately, the federal government compensated the Nixon family with $18 million for the president’s official papers and began the laborious task of reviewing all presidential records including the infamous presidential tapes. While this effort was ongoing, the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace Foundation built and operated a historic site (the Nixon birthplace), as well as a museum and library as something of a shrine to the former president.

In 2003, at the urging of Rep. Thomas Davis (R-Va.) and the Nixon family, Congress agreed to amend the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-526) in such a way as to allow the Nixon papers to leave Washington, DC. The amendment set the stage for making the Yorba Linda facility a full-fledged NARA presidential library.

Consistent with PLA provisions, however, before any Nixon papers or related presidential materials are permitted to be transferred, the library foundation must modify the existing facilities or build new structures to meet the standards expected of a National Archives facility. As presently configured, the Nixon library does not (in terms of research rooms, offices, or archival storage) meet those stringent NARA guidelines. In order to do so, an influx of additional private or governmental funds is needed. This earmark is designed to help rectify that situation.

The current appropriation of $50,000 clearly violates the spirit if not the letter of the 1974 Presidential Library Act and sets a dangerous precedent—that of allocating governmental funds for the purpose of planning and designing an archival storage building for a potential presidential library. Some Hill insiders fear that once the planning and design work is completed, the foundation will again return to Congress and ask its lobbying firm, Cassidy and Associates, to press for additional monies needed to build the facility. Since presidential libraries have now become customary, future presidential libraries may also seek public subsidies prior to raising private donations.

The Nixon earmark stands as a prime example of special interest lobbying that—given other more pressing needs—does not benefit history or archival programs of the federal government.

Clinton Papers Release May Be Delayed

In accordance with provisions of the Presidential Records Act (PRA), former president Bill Clinton will have to receive President Bush’s approval to release his presidential records before his library can release them to the public. Clinton would like to make available some 100,000 documents concerning his administration’s domestic policies when his presidential library opens this November. According to library officials, there may be a delay in allowing access to the records even though they hope "to make every effort to open as much as we can."

Under provisions of the PRA, records of a president are closed for a minimum of five years. (Under certain circumstances select types of records can remain closed for up to 12 years or even longer depending on whether they pertain to national security.) One PRA stipulation requires that the current president approve the release of any record before the five-year minimum has elapsed. Clinton’s Presidential Library is slated to open on November 18, 2004, only four years after his presidency ended.

At this juncture, when the library opens, the only records that definitely will be available to researchers are the 500,000 pages collected by the health care task force headed by the then first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. These documents include records of closed-door meetings relating to the task force’s proposal for a universal health care system. According to library officials some 20,000 searchable pages of Clinton’s public utterances are already posted on the web.

While Clinton hopes to see the records of his administration opened quickly, there are no plans to release documents relating to the Clinton’s legal defense in the Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, and Paula Jones investigations.

Archives Technical Amendment Bill Passes House

On September 13, 2004, the House of Representatives unanimously approved "The National Archives and Records Administration Efficiency Act of 2003" (H.R. 3478). This legislation seeks to improve the efficiency of operations by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It was introduced by Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census, on November 7, 2003. The bill has now been advanced to the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs for prompt action.

The National Archives and Records Administration Efficiency Act clears the way for regulatory revisions designed to streamline and shorten the current required process for determining agency retention schedules. Secondly, it allows NARA to use fees generated from the use of facilities managed by the archives by other organizations for educational outreach. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the legislation enables NARA to enter into cooperative agreements with state and local governments and non-profit organizations in order to advance various programs and activities of NARA. Finally, tacked onto the bill is a legislative reauthorization for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). It provides for up to $10 million for grants each year through fiscal 2009.

— BC