House bill could force library donors out of shadows

Should Democrats pass a new ethics law, President Bush may want to read the fine print before signing it. A little-noticed section in one 80-page version could make it more difficult to raise money for presidential libraries.

House Democrats have made passing a broad ethics package among their top priorities next year when they take over the majority for the first time in 12 years. The bill is still in the works but will likely borrow heavily from a measure Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) introduced earlier this year.

That bill, HR 4682, most famously would prohibit privately funded travel and lengthen a lobbying ban from one to two years for top staff and former members. Less known is its provision, on pages 76 to 80, requiring the organization that raises money for a presidential library to disclose donors to Congress four times a year.

Bush already has grand plans for his library. The fundraising goal is $500 million for the facility, and, reportedly, a new think tank that has been likened to the Hoover Institution, a conservative policy center in Palo Alto, Calif.

By comparison, President Clinton’s library in Arkansas cost $165 million, twice as much as George H.W. Bush’s library at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.

Three Texas schools are currently bidding to be home to President Bush’s library: Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Baylor University in Waco, and the University of Dallas.

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance expert at Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease, said new disclosure rules could complicate fundraising efforts. Kappel said foreign sources in particular are sensitive to perceptions that they are trying to influence the American government.

Presidential libraries currently aren’t required to list donors, although they sometimes do voluntarily. Most of the library fundraising arms are 501(c)(3)s that are required to release some tax information. But that information doesn’t include a donor list, according to Suzanne Coffman, a spokeswoman for Guidestar.org, a non-profit database.

Congress has debated the issue of requiring the disclosure of presidential library donors before, perhaps most notably after President Clinton’s controversial pardon of financier Marc Rich. Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Rich, was a major donor to the Clinton library.

“This has made the rounds before,” said Sharon Fawcett, an assistant archivist for presidential libraries, of the disclosure rules.

In the past, lawmakers were unable to agree on whether the disclosure rules should extend beyond the president’s term, and if so, for how long, Fawcett said.

The lack of disclosure rules makes it difficult to find out how extensively presidents fundraise for their libraries while they remain in office. But generally, Kappel said, “It’s a lot easier to raise money while you are in office.”

The House bill would require the disclosure of any donation of $100 or more, whether the president was still in office or not.

There are only 12 presidential libraries that are part of the national archives. They start with Herbert Hoover and include every president since.

The Presidential Library Act of 1955 created the system of privately erected and federally maintained presidential libraries. A law passed in 1986 required the creation of private endowments to offset ongoing operating costs.