Shining a light on presidential libraries — the unrenowned pay-to-play scandal

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The opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Since the groundbreaking of the humble Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in 1941, presidential libraries seem to become larger and more glamorous with each edition.

As they’ve grown in size — and cost — oversight measures haven’t kept up, making presidential libraries one of the best avenues for wealthy donors to stealthily gain influence with a sitting president.

“A sitting president can raise unlimited sums of money from donors of any kind for their library,” said Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, who has long pushed for increased transparency of presidential library funding. “We’ve seen foreign governments and individuals give large sums — and there’s no mandatory disclosure on any of this money.”

Most presidential libraries disclose their donors in wide ranges and do not give specific details about the donors. Despite several presidential library controversies occurring over the last three decades, no laws have been passed to mandate disclosure of donor information.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) introduced the first presidential library reform toward the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency when the congressman was informed that foreign governments were making contributions to Clinton’s planned library. The library’s funding came under the spotlight again when, on his last day in office, Clinton gave indicted hedge-fund manager and fugitive Marc Rich a pardon after receiving a $450,000 contribution to the Clinton library from Rich’s ex-wife.

Pay-to-play controversies didn’t start, or end, with Clinton. In 1993, President George H.W. Bush pardoned Edwin Cox, Jr., convicted of bank fraud, then received between $100,000 and $250,000 toward his presidential library from the senior Edwin Cox, a wealthy Texas businessman and GOP donor.

During George W. Bush’s final year in office, a lobbyist close to Bush was caught on tape telling a dignitary from central Asia he should make a $250,000 contribution to the Bush library in exchange for access to the White House.

“This creates the same conflicts we’ve seen with everything else,” Schuman said. “People who want something out of a sitting president give massive sums to their library to get it.”

The newest Presidential Library Donation Reform Act (H.R. 1063), introduced by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), would provide mandatory transparency by requiring presidential library fundraising organizations to disclose all contributions of more than $200 and provide information about the donors.

“More transparency in politics is a goal we should strive for on a bipartisan basis, and that’s exactly what this bill achieves,” Meadows said in a statement. “Given Presidents can lawfully solicit unlimited donations for their libraries while still in office, the public should be able to know basic information about these donations — just as they can with their representatives.”

The bill was referred the to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Feb. 12 and has not moved since. Despite always having bipartisan support, presidential library reform legislation has passed the House several times, but never the Senate.

“This is not a campaign finance bill, this is about transparency when politicians are on their way out,” Schuman said. “I think everyone can agree that’s important.”

President Barack Obama’s presidential library has created controversy for several reasons, from the fact that it won’t be run by the National Archives and Records Administration to a lawsuit from a Chicago group.

But the library shares a similar problem with its predecessors. Though the Obama Foundation lists its donors — sixty-eight donors have given more than $1 million according to its website — numbers are given in ranges, actual amounts are unknown and no information is given about each donor. Additionally, the foundation has accepted several large contributions from donor advised funds such as Fidelity Charitable, obscuring the true source of the contribution.

The Center for Responsive Politics has joined with a dozen transparency organizations to advocate for the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act to pass through the Senate. Learn more here.

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