Sen. Jeff Sessions Blocks Important Bill to Increase Access to Presidential Records

As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for the June 28 nomination hearing of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has been outspoken about what he considers to be the slow release of records from the Clinton Library to the committee. Ironically, Sen. Sessions has put a hold on the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009 (H.R. 35) that would help to avoid such delays in the future by ensuring the timely release of presidential records to the public.

The release of presidential records is governed by the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, as amended by Executive Order (E.O.) 12667, which establishes that the public records of our presidents are government property and therefore belong to the American people. Unfortunately, the PRA has been weakened over the years by presidents who wish to keep their records out of public reach.

In 2001, President Bush issued E.O. 13233 granting an incumbent or former president veto power over any public release of materials by the Archivist even after the expiration of the required 12-year withholding period. This executive order was in clear opposition to the intent of the 1978 law, and AALL immediately joined other open government groups in supporting legislative efforts to overturn it. We were pleased when, on his first full day in office, President Obama issued E.O. 13489 to revoke President Bush’s executive order and establish a stronger standard for public access.

AALL supports the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2009 because it would ensure that the important openness provisions of President Obama’s executive order become law. The bill would establish reasonable standards for the release of presidential records and restore the balance between a president’s ability to withhold certain records for a limited time period and the public’s right to access them.

The House passed H.R. 35 on January 7, 2009 by an overwhelming vote of 359-58. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs reported the bill favorably on April 1, 2009 with an amendment that extends the amount of time an incumbent and former president may review their records before release.

Kagan served as Associate Counsel to President Clinton from 1995 to 1996 and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council from 1997 to 1999. It’s unfortunate that Sen. Sessions doesn’t recognize that the important piece of legislation he is holding from a floor vote would address his concerns about the delays in getting access to Clinton-era presidential records. We urge him to immediately lift his hold.

To learn more about the history and status of public access to presidential records, please read our Issue Brief.

[Posted by Emily Feldman]

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