Congress Approves Cummings Bill to Expand Access to Presidential Records
Washington, D.C.—Today, the House of Representatives unanimously adopted legislation introduced by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to improve public access to the records of presidents and their senior advisors.
The Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments, H.R. 1233, institutes new guidelines and procedures to ensure the timely release of presidential records while safeguarding the ability of presidents to protect documents relating to national security and executive privilege.
The bill is widely supported by good government organizations dedicated to increasing transparency in government. Twenty-three groups sent a strong letter of support, including OpentheGovernment.org, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Government Accountability Project.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously on September 11, 2014, and after today’s House vote, the bill will now be sent to President Obama for signature.
Below are Ranking Member Cummings’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, on the House floor today:
“I introduced the bill we are considering today, the Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments, to give the American people access to the records presidents create while they are in office. I appreciate the support this bill received from Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, as well as Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Carper.
“The House passed this legislation in January by a vote of 420 to zero. This bill also passed the Senate with no opposition. There are not many bills that make it through both the House and Senate without even a hint of opposition, but this is one of them. When the Senate passed the House bill, it made technical changes that require us to pass the bill again. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this bill again so we can send it to the President’s desk for his signature.
“This bill will amend the Presidential Records Act by adding procedures to ensure that the records of presidents and their senior advisors are released to the public in a timely manner. Under current law, presidents can restrict access to their records for up to twelve years after they leave office. After that time, presidents may continue to restrict access to their records by asserting that they are protected by executive privilege.
“Under this bill, the records of current and former presidents would continue to be protected for twelve years after they leave office. After that period, however, the bill would create a presumption of disclosure, and presidents would have up to 90 days to object, or those records would be automatically released. In other words, when records are requested more than twelve years after presidents leave office, this bill would place the burden on the president to review those records and either assert executive privilege or allow them to be publicly disclosed.
“This legislation would not impact the ability of presidents to review their records before they are released. The legislation also would not impact the ability of presidents to protect records because of national security concerns. The bill has also been amended to address an issue raised by the White House. In the original version of this bill, presidents would have had only 40 days to review records. Based on bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, the current version of the bill now extends the review period to 90 days.
“The Presidential and Federal Records Act would also require that any assertion of privilege by a former president be affirmed by the incumbent president or through a court order for the record to be withheld from the public. This will provide an important check to ensure that presidents cannot keep their records secret without accountability.
“The bill also includes language based on an amendment that Chairman Darrell Issa proposed during the Committee markup of the bill to address the use of personal email by federal employees. This bill would continue to allow employees to use their personal email account for official business when necessary. But it would require employees to copy their official email account or forward their email to their official account.
“The Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments updates the Federal Records Act to modernize the definition of what constitutes a record and to allow agencies to use digital reproductions when they are required to indefinitely maintain copies of documents.
“This bill is an important step forward in protecting our historical record. I urge my colleagues to support H.R. 1233 and send it on to the President’s desk.”