Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I'm in ur kongres, openin ur gubmint

Change we can believe in:

The end may finally in sight to the seven-year battle historians and archivists have waged to overturn President Bush’s Executive Order 13233 of November 2001 that restricted access to presidential records. On January 7, 2009, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 35, the “Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009,” by an overwhelmingly bi-partisan vote of 359-58. H.R. 35 was chosen by the House leadership as the first piece of substantive legislation passed in 2009 as a symbol of government transparency.

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. For those of you not up with your archival issues, EO 13233 was passed by President Bush in November 2001 and allowed any president to withhold access to the records of any OTHER president "reflecting military, diplomatic, or national security secrets, Presidential communications, legal advice, legal work, or the deliberative processes of the President and the President's advisers, and to do so in a manner consistent with the Supreme Court's decisions in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425 (1977), and other cases...".

For those of you who were wondering, that just about covers everything that a historian might possibly want to look at from a president's records. It's not up there with, say, EO 9066, but it is nonetheless a pretty odious directive, a pretty obvious subversion of the Presidential Records Act, and an extremely flagrant attempt to protect the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who, conveniently enough, would have had his papers released in 2001.

Welp, saddle up the horses, boys, 'cause it's time to go riding. Here are a few of the provisions of the act:

  • Overturn Bush Executive Order 13233. Huzzah, huzzah, we already knew this though. Moving on:
  • Establish a Deadline for Review of Records. No more of this 'waiting indefinitely for the president to give his permission' foolishness, which is always a good thing.
  • Limit the Authority of Former Presidents to Withhold Presidential Records.
    Basically, EO 13233 said that if a former president didn't want his records released, he could tell the incumbent so and said incumbent would have to withhold the records. This was, of course, specifically inserted into the EO so that Democratic presidents could not overturn executive privilege for the papers of some of the, um, more 'ethically dubious' GOP CinCs.

    No more! The incumbent MAY withhold the records, but is no longer required to do so. Obama, coincidentally, has promised to support this kind of transparency in government. I'd be sweating if I were Oliver North right now.

  • Require the President to Make Privilege Claims Personally. Not that former presidents have to physically go down to their presidential libraries and stop the researcher, but that any privilege claims expire once he does. In other words, Ronald Reagan DOUBLY has no way to withhold his papers now.
  • Eliminate Executive Privilege Claims for Vice Presidents. This is a pretty obvious F-U to Vice President Cheney. Not that I'm complaining.
A similar bill actually passed in the House in 2007, but died when President Bush threatened to veto. It is unlikely that President Obama will do the same. Assuming people in the senate are non-stupid, this will be a boon to archivists, historians, and the general public alike. I for one am very excited about HR 35. If you're an information professional, you should be, too.


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