WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Brushing aside a veto threat, the House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to overturn a 2001 order by President George W. Bush that lets former presidents keep their papers secret indefinitely.
The measure, which drew bipartisan support and passed by a veto-busting 333-93 margin, was among White House-opposed bills the House passed that would widen access to government information and protect government whistleblowers.
“Today, Congress took an important step toward restoring openness and transparency in government,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said.
The presidential papers bill nullifies a November 2001 order, criticized by historians, in which Bush allowed the White House or a former president to block release of a former president’s papers and put the onus on researchers to show a “specific need” for many types of records.
Among beneficiaries of the Bush order was Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, a former vice president and president.
The order gave former vice presidents the right to stop the release of their papers through an executive privilege that previously only presidents could use. And it extended to deceased presidents’ designees rights to keep their papers secret indefinitely.
The House bill would give current and former presidents 40 business days to object to requests to view their papers, allow a sitting president to override a former president’s claim of executive privilege and strip former vice presidents and the designees of deceased presidents of the power to use executive privilege to block access to their historical documents.
In its veto warning, the White House said the bill encroaches on the president’s constitutional authority and the 40-day deadline would force presidents to use executive privilege to block information requests “out of an abundance of caution” and thereby invite litigation.
The real reason, the White House said, for delays of up to five years in releasing presidential papers to researchers is a lack of archivists at presidential libraries.
Many historians, however, support the House bill, saying the Bush order has slowed the declassification process.
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archives at George Washington University, said the average time to release presidential documents has grown to 78 months from 18 months since the Bush order, which he said directly contributed to one year of the lag.
A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate.
Also passed by the House by a 331-94 margin, despite another veto threat, was a bill aimed at bolstering protections of government whistleblowers who report wrongdoing, especially those with private contractors and national security and scientific agencies.
A third bill, which passed 308-117, was aimed at speeding requests for government information made under the Freedom of Information Act. The White House stopped short of threatening to veto it but said it could not support the bill.