. . . And Library Donors, Too

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

IMAGINE THAT a sitting president solicits millions of dollars in contributions for a pet project. The money, in six- and seven-figure checks, can come from companies that may be seeking government contracts or trying to loosen regulations, from foreign governments that may be trying to curry favor with the president, from wealthy individuals who may want ambassadorial appointments or other government action. Or the donations may be motivated by unselfish support for the president -- there is no way to tell, because the money can be collected in secret, with no limits on amounts or sources, and no requirement for public disclosure.

This is not some far-fetched scenario -- it is an appalling, legal and bipartisan norm of conduct in the final years of any second-term administration as the incumbent president begins to prepare for life out of office and to make plans for a presidential library. Libraries cost money -- and that money is, somehow, easier to raise while you are still president. Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan before him, amassed millions in pledges this way -- including, as it turned out in Mr. Clinton's case, from donors who then lobbied for, and secured, presidential pardons. Now, President Bush is starting the process for his presidential library, with a reported price tag of $500 million. Mr. Bush, too, may collect the checks in secret; a library spokesman says no decision has been made.

Presidential libraries are not ordinary charities, and the ordinary concerns about preserving the privacy of charitable contributions do not apply to them. They are hybrid institutions, built and endowed with private funds but ultimately public property run by the National Archives. There is an easy remedy for this inexcusable loophole, pushed by Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.) and John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.). Their proposal would mandate disclosure of library contributions greater than $200 -- not only during a president's term but for four years thereafter. An earlier version passed the House once, in 2002, only to languish in the Senate. Now, having been approved by Mr. Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a bill is again headed to the House floor.

The Senate has already signaled its understanding of the importance of revealing such donations. Its version of lobbying reform would require registered lobbyists to report library gifts. But history teaches that broader disclosure is necessary: The Senate rule, for example, wouldn't have revealed the gifts relevant to Mr. Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich.

It is imperative, this time around, that the measure be passed and signed into law -- by the first president whose fundraising it would bring into the sunlight.

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