The White House and federal agencies would have to step up efforts to keep their e-mails under a bill introduced Wednesday, but a nonpartisan watchdog group in a separate report said the legislation does too little to fix an "abysmal" federal e-mail record-keeping system.
Government rules for keeping e-mails have not kept pace with changes in technology and working habits that have meant federal business occurs increasingly online, experts and open government advocates said in testimony submitted for a House Oversight and Government Reform Information Policy Subcommittee hearing on the bill.
With decisions reached and rules drafted through electronic collaboration, an outdated records policy means "we do not know with any certainty that of all the documents and information we need to write our history, to trace policy development and implementation ... are being preserved," Patrice McDermott, director of OpentheGovernment.org, a nonprofit group that advocates government transparency, said in her written testimony.
The legislation, introduced by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and two committee Democrats, would require agencies to store e-mail electronically. It would mandate that the National Archives and Records Administration issue regulations within 18 months on how agencies should satisfy this requirement.
The Federal Records Act now lets agencies keep e-mail in paper files. According to a GAO report released Wednesday, many agencies use print-and-file systems that result in the loss of many e-mails that should be saved.
At four agencies GAO studied, all of which rely on print-and-file systems, "for about half of senior officials, e-mail records were not being appropriately identified and preserved," the report said.
Waxman's bill takes specific aim at the e-mail retention policy of the Bush White House, which the chairman has blasted for losing hundreds of days of e-mails due to reliance on an inadequate records system. A former White House information technology official has called the system "primitive."
Waxman is also investigating the practice of White House officials, including former political adviser Karl Rove, of using mostly Republican National Committee e-mail accounts instead of government e-mail accounts. The RNC says it has destroyed many of those records.
The bill also would update the Presidential Records Act, which allows the president to manage records during his term. The bill instead would direct the National Archives to create standards for White House records retention and to report to Congress on White House compliance.
The hearing on the bill, originally set for Wednesday, was postponed by the subcommittee on information policy, which did not say when it will be rescheduled.
In a report timed to coincide with the bill's introduction, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called the Waxman plan "anemic."
CREW, which is suing the White House over the lost e-mails, said the bill lacks effective enforcement mechanisms. Under the measure, "the president can ignore his record-keeping responsibility with impunity," said the report, which is based on review of agency e-mail policies.
With off-the-shelf software for e-mail retention now available, the group argued that Congress should not let agencies wait 18 months to adopt new policies.
"Agencies continue to cling to outdated, inefficient and ineffective paper record-keeping systems," the group said. "The federal government has fallen woefully behind its private-sector counterparts."