Friday, December 5, 2008
WHILE ATTENTION has focused on Bill Clinton's belated agreement to release the names of donors to his presidential library, the sitting president, unnoticed, has been raising money for his own. President Bush's secret fundraising is lawful, but it is no more acceptable than Mr. Clinton's was.
Mr. Bush's activities have included private sessions with potential donors around the country and, according to press secretary Dana Perino, about a dozen dinners at the White House residence. At these sessions, Mr. Bush does not ask for money but rather outlines his "vision" for the library. How much has been raised? We don't know because the library foundation isn't saying.
The president has imposed more restrictions on himself than are required by law: He is not taking money or pledges from foreign interests while in office (Mr. Clinton likewise eschewed foreign donations while president), nor is he accepting corporate donations. One does not have to impute corrupt motives to find this activity troubling. Ms. Perino has said that the president has asked not to be told who is giving or how much is given, which only underscores the unseemliness of a president raising secret cash.
Candidates for federal office are required to disclose gifts to their political campaigns ranging from $200 to the $2,300 maximum. How, then, can a sitting president be allowed to collect unlimited sums from undisclosed donors for his future library? To anyone who doubts the potential for mischief in this sort of fundraising, we have two words: Marc Rich. The fugitive financier obtained a last-minute pardon from Mr. Clinton -- after his ex-wife contributed $450,000 to Mr. Clinton's library.
Mr. Clinton's decision to release the names of donors to his presidential library and foundation is welcome, even if it comes about nine years too late. It would have been untenable, as President-elect Barack Obama recognized, for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as the nation's top diplomat while the public remained in the dark about the contributions of foreign countries, corporations and wealthy individuals to her husband's causes. Mr. Clinton's agreement to reveal his donor list puts the lie to the argument that it is somehow infeasible or unfair to require disclosure. Likewise, the Clinton example, and the intertwining of the former president's financial interests and foundation fundraising, underscore the importance of requiring disclosure of donors to presidential libraries -- which are, after all, eventually turned over to the federal government to operate.
A measure to require such disclosure while presidents are in office and for at least four years thereafter passed the House but was blocked in the Senate by Alaska Republican Ted Stevens on the grounds that it was unfair to apply it to Mr. Bush. Mr. Stevens, who lost his bid for reelection last month, no longer presents an impediment; Congress should pass the bill -- and Mr. Obama should commit now to such reporting, whether required by law or not.