National Coalition for History

News Briefs, February 2009

Lee White, February 2009

Presidential Library Funding Disclosure Bill Clears the House

On the day the presidential records bill passed (January 7, 2009), the House of Representatives approved H.R. 36, the “Presidential Library Donation Reform Act of 2009,” by a vote of 388-31. H.R. 36 requires organizations fundraising for presidential libraries to disclose their donations while the president is in office and during the period before the federal government has taken possession of the library.

Since it is unlikely the bill will be passed by January 20, 2009, the disclosure requirements would not be applied retroactively to any funds President George W. Bush raised while in office. However, it would apply to donations made to the George W. Bush Presidential Library after enactment, and to libraries for President-elect Obama and his successors. Former-president Bill Clinton recently voluntarily released the names of past donors to his presidential library to help facilitate the confirmation of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to be Secretary of State in the Obama administration.

The bill is identical to one passed by the House in 2007. A presidential libraries donations bill passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2007, but it differed with regard to the disclosure of donations while a president is in office and, after a president leaves office, when the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has assumed responsibility for the facility.

Presidential libraries are built using private funds raised by an organization or foundation working on behalf of the president. Under current law, donations for the presidential library can be unlimited in size and need not be disclosed. In addition, foreign nationals can make contributions to a sitting, or former, president’s library foundation. This is in contrast to federal election laws that prohibit contributions by foreign nationals.

The bill would require that all organizations established for the purpose of raising funds for presidential libraries or their related facilities report on a quarterly basis all contributions of $200 or more. The bill also sets a minimum reporting period of four years after the end of a president’s term.

Organizations that raise funds for presidential libraries typically begin fundraising while the president remains in office. Before the library is turned over to the National Archives, these organizations must raise enough money to build the library and to provide the Archivist with an endowment for the maintenance of the facility. A law passed by Congress last year raised the threshold for the amount of money that must be raised before NARA can take possession of a presidential archive depository. The new bill will make presidential library funding even more challenging.

Under H.R. 36, presidential library fund-raising organizations would be required to disclose to Congress and the Archivist the amount and date of each contribution, the name of the contributor, and if the contributor is an individual, the occupation of the contributor. The National Archives would be required to make the information available to the public through a free, searchable, and downloadable database on the Internet.

Selection of New Archivist of the United States

On December 19, 2008, the major archival groups, the National Coalition for History (NCH), and several individual NCH member organizations sent a letter to President-elect Obama’s Transition Team setting forth the qualifications that should be considered in selecting a new Archivist of the United States. It was sent the same day that former-Archivist Allen Weinstein’s resignation became effective.

To read a copy of the transmittal letter and the selection criteria visit the Coalition’s website at www.historycoalition.org.

Representatives of the archival and history communities have met with the Obama Transition team. However, no public timetable for filling the position has been announced.

253 Historians Oppose Wal-Mart Adjacent to Wilderness Battlefield

In December, in a letter to Wal-Mart President and CEO Lee Scott, 253 historians from throughout the country urged the retail giant to reconsider plans to build a 138,000 square-foot super center immediately adjacent to the Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County, Virginia. A formal application for the project was filed on December 5, 2008.

Among the signers are some of the most well-known historians in America, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David M. McCullough; James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom; Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns; respected Virginia educators and authors William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher and James I. Robertson, the authors of dozens of Civil War titles; and Edwin C. Bearss, chief historian emeritus of the National Park Service.

In the letter to Wal-Mart, the 253 co-signing historians pronounce the Wilderness to be a “unique historical and cultural treasure deserving careful stewardship” before declaring it “an indelible part of our history, its very ground hallowed by the American blood spilled there.” The letter concludes with a request for Wal-Mart to “identify a site that would meet its needs without changing the very character of the battlefield” and move the store further away from the National Military Park.

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought May 5–6, 1864, was among the most significant engagements of the American Civil War and marked the first time legendary generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant faced off against one another in battle. Nearly 29,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in the horrendous, two-day struggle.

The Wilderness Battlefield Coalition is a group of national, statewide and local preservation, conservation and civic organizations that share an abiding interest in preserving and the Wilderness Battlefield. The Coalition seeks to raise public awareness about the value of historic preservation and the urgent threats confronting the Wilderness Battlefield. The Coalition consists of eight nonprofit organizations: the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, the Civil War Preservation Trust, Friends of Fredericksburg Area Battlefields, Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, the National Coalition for History, the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Piedmont Environmental Council. For more information on the Coalition and its opposition to the proposed Wal-Mart at the Wilderness, please visit www.civilwar.org/walmart08/.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org. His regular, informative, “Washington Update,” can be read at http://historycoalition.org where readers can also sign up to receive the update or to get an RSS feed about the latest post.