A House panel on Thursday voted to
overturn a 2001 order by President George W. Bush that enables
former presidents, including Bush's father, to keep some of
their papers secret indefinitely.
The bipartisan bill, hailed by historians, was passed
without objection on a voice vote by the House Committee on
Oversight and Government Reform. The full House of
Representatives is expected to vote on it next week.
"It will ensure that future historians have access to
presidential records as the Presidential Records Act intended,"
said committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who
is one of the bill's sponsors.
In November 2001, Bush issued the order, widely criticized
by historians, that allowed either the White House or a former
president to block the release of a former president's papers
and put the onus on researchers to show a "specific need" for
many types of records.
"It's slowing down the declassification of presidential
documents and that's obviously a problem," said Lee White,
executive director of the National Coalition for History, which
represents 70 historical and archival groups.
"Putting on these kinds of restrictions and delays just
pushes back when history's going to be written," he said.
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives at
George Washington University, said the average time to release
presidential documents has grown to 78 months since the Bush
order from 18 months. The Bush order directly contributed to
one year of the lag, he said.
"The executive order is bad but it's only part of the
problem," said Blanton, adding that the National Archives needs
more resources and a technology upgrade.
When Bush issued his order, then White House Counsel
Alberto Gonzales, who is now attorney general, said it was
needed to "provide a process, an orderly process to ... deal
with requests for information."
The order also bestowed on the former vice presidents the
right to stop the release of their papers through a claim of
executive privilege that previously only presidents could use.
And it extended to deceased presidents' designees the right to
use executive privilege to keep their papers secret.
Because Bush acted as the papers of former President Ronald
Reagan were made available some 12 years after he left office,
some historians at the time speculated that the order was meant
to benefit Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, who was vice
president for eight years before becoming president in 1989.
The House bill would give current and former presidents 40
business days to object to requests to view their papers, allow
a sitting president to override a former president's claim of
executive privilege and strip former vice presidents and the
designees of deceased presidents of the power to use executive
privilege to block access to documents.
Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited