House panel tries to open the (financial) books of presidential libraries


As President Obama faces choosing between Hawaii and Chicago as the site of his presidential library, a House committee today greenlighted a bill that would make donors to the institution public.

The next step will be a vote in the full House.

The bill would require future presidential library foundations to report donors to the National Archives on a quarterly basis. The Archives would then post them online in a searchable, downloadable database. The Sunlight Foundation's policy counsel, Daniel Schuman, testified in favor of the measure last week.

The state of Hawaii wants the library near this spot in Kaka'ako Waterfront Park

Lawmakers backing the measure said they are trying to prevent donors from asking for favors in exchange for writing a large check. The Obama library could cost upwards of $500 million.

"There have been some abuses of these" libraries in the past, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn.

He might have been referring to so-called "Pardongate," the 2001 incident in which former President Bill Clinton pardoned convicted financier Marc Rich as he was leaving office. Rich's ex-wife gave $450,000 to President Clinton's foundation.

Duncan has been trying to get this bill passed ever since then. It won House approval in 2007 and 2009 only to die in the Senate, which ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., noted today.

"This should not be a partisan measure," Cummings added.

Duncan also brought up the concern of foreigners trying to "curry favor" with presidents in their final years. The Clinton Foundation, which includes his Little Rock, Ark. library and his global charity, has received more than $10 million from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Norway, aid agencies of the Dominican Republic and Australia, and more than $1 million from other foreign states. Clinton also received over $1 million in leftover funds from his inauguration festivities; it's unclear (and not required to be disclosed) how much Obama has left in that account, as Sunlight has reported

Donations to President Clinton's library were only voluntarily released after his wife, Hillary Clinton, was nominated to be secretary of state. George W. Bush's foundation has kept the donors private thus far.

The bill would require disclosure of all donations over $200.

(Photo credit: Hawaii Community Development Authority)