By Dan Friedman
July 9, 2008
Ahead of a scheduled House vote Wednesday, the White House threatened to veto a bill aimed at forcing the president and federal agencies to improve preservation of e-mail records.
House aides said that while they expect the measure to get bipartisan support, it will be considered under regular rules because of the veto threat.
The bill has generated some Republican opposition due to a provision the White House says gives the National Archives and Records Administration new responsibility for overseeing White House record-keeping.
The legislation would upset "delicate separation of powers" created in the 1978 Presidential Records Act and would "require the archivist to intrude, in an excessive and inappropriate manner, into the activities of an incumbent president and his or her staff," the White House said in a Statement of Administration Policy issued Tuesday.
Introduced by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and two committee Democrats, the bill attempts to legislate a fix to problems that have left the Bush White House unable to find hundreds of days' worth of e-mails.
A committee investigation into the missing e-mails focused on the White House's scrapping of an e-mail records system created during the Clinton administration and eventual reliance on a less-sophisticated system that one former White House technology officer called "primitive." A committee report cites e-mail preservation problems faced by the Clinton White House as well.
The bill would require the National Archives to set standards for White House electronic records and to report annually to Congress on implementation of its recommendations.
Archive officials as well as the White House have said argued the bill unnecessarily expands the agency's job from advice to oversight.
But at a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday, House Oversight and Government Reform Information Policy Subcommittee Chairman William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said the bill, of which he is a co-sponsor, only affirms the National Archives' job of advising the White House on record-keeping.
Clay said the bill is meant to offer a nonpartisan fix. The committee "tried to take out the hype of the controversy … and protect records in an apolitical manner," he said.
A less-discussed but farther-reaching part of the bill updates the Federal Records Act to require federal agencies, also under standards set by the National Archives, to save all e-mail records electronically and create systems to allow electronic searches.
According to the Government Accountability Office and a committee report, most agencies now use "print and file" records systems for keeping e-mail, many of them spotty. Historians and open government advocates have said that approach has not kept pace as agencies increasingly reach decisions via e-mail, causing loss of important records.
The White House argues the storage provision "is onerous and overly broad" and "could impose enormous unfunded costs on agencies."
It is not clear if the bill would require storage of instant messages, so-called wikis and emerging communication technology, the White House statement says.
"Existing policy and guidance under current law is sufficient," the statement says.
By Dan Friedman
July 9, 2008