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House Oversight Panel OKs Four Government Transparency Bills

Four bills aimed at making the government more transparent advanced through House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today on voice votes.

Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and ranking member Tom Davis (R-Va.) reached a compromise on proposed amendments to the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1255) that would restrict access to presidential records in the National Archives by an individual “convicted of a crime relating to the review, retention, removal, or destruction of records of the Archives.” That agreement allowed the act to pass out of the committee.

The underlying bill was introduced in reaction to President Bush’s 2001 executive order allowing former presidents to exert executive privilege to withhold records that are supposed to be released to the public 12 years after the end of their presidency. According to Waxman, “The Presidential Records Act Amendment of 2007 would nullify the Bush executive order and establish procedures to ensure the timely release of presidential records.”

Members agreed to restore executive privilege exclusively to the incumbent president, but argued over who would have access to archived presidential records. Davis initially offered an amendment narrowly tailored to prohibit access by anyone convicted of “the unauthorized removal, from the custody of the Archivist, of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States.”

Waxman responded by calling this a “partisan jab” intended to prevent former President Bill Clinton administration National Security Adviser Sandy Berger — who was convicted for removing classified documents from the archives — from accessing records. Waxman offered a substitute amendment to Davis’ amendment, which granted the Archivist the authority to deny access to a broader range of people convicted for a breach of public trust.

Republicans countered that granting such powers effectively turns the Archivist into a police officer, and could create political pressure on the Archivist to allow or deny access to high-profile convicts. Democrats agreed to remove discretion on the Archivist’s part in exchange for a Republican compromise to widen the range of convictions that would prohibit access to the records.

Separately, the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1309) passed by a voice vote with one amendment offered by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Maloney praised FOIA as being “critical to our democracy,” but lamented that an act intended to open up government sometimes doesn’t work. Citizens requesting information sometimes “have to wait months, sometimes even years to find out the status of their requests,” she said.

The FOIA Amendments Act of 2007 requires agencies to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days. Agencies will be required to notify requesters of the status of their query and provide them with a tracking number to follow the progress of an individual request. Maloney’s amendment requires agencies to indicate the reason they are withholding any requested information. FOIA offers nine reasons to withhold information from the public.

On another bill, the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act (H.R. 1254), the committee voted to require disclosure of donations to presidential libraries. The bill calls for presidential library fundraising organizations to disclose the amount and donor for any gift exceeding $200.

Davis offered an amendment that delayed the bill from taking effect until the next president is inaugurated. He said that he was afraid the bill could be seen as an attack on the current president. Waxman countered, “The bill isn’t about President Bush, but that doesn’t mean we should exclude him.” The amendment was not adopted.

Davis offered a second amendment to H.R. 1254, which would also force disclosure of donations to Congressional foundations. Waxman said, “I strongly do support this amendment,” but added that it was not in the jurisdiction of the committee and could not be adopted.

The fourth bill taken up by the panel today, the Accountability in Contracting Act (H.R. 1362), was voted out of committee with one amendment offered by Davis. The act calls for the government to justify no-bid contracts, to minimize the length of noncompetitive contracts to eight months, to disclose contractor overcharges exceeding $1 million and enhancing contract oversight.

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