From Rose Mary Woods’ tape recordings in the Nixon White House to Karl Rove’s e-mails during the Bush administration, congressional investigators and political historians are forever seeking records of White House communications, often against the wishes of the sitting president.
Hoping to boost their efforts, the Democratic-controlled House moved Wednesday to impose new rules to preserve e-mails from the White House and other federal agencies, acting in defiance of a veto threat from President Bush.
The measure was in response to an uproar over e-mails found missing by recent Capitol Hill probes of Bush aides, including Rove, then the president’s chief political strategist. Investigators have tried to determine whether Rove and others used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts to conduct government business in an attempt to circumvent the Presidential Records Act, a post-Watergate law designed to preserve White House records.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has said that White House e-mails transmitted over several hundred days between 2003 and 2005 also are unaccounted for, an assertion that the administration disputes.
“Some have said that this bill is about preserving history, and it is,” said Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). “But it also is about our constitutional responsibility for oversight and for holding this and any administration accountable.”
Though problems have been acute under the Bush administration, Waxman said, other administrations, including that of former President Clinton, have run into problems preserving e-mails.
The Electronic Message Preservation Act would direct the archivist of the United States to draw up new rules for preserving electronic records.
The measure, which passed 286 to 137 in the House on Wednesday, faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.
“The administration has always been committed to preserving electronic records . . . and is now going through a process to make sure that all records that should be preserved are preserved,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. The administration, he said, is conducting a review of the e-mail archiving system.
The White House, in opposing the measure, said in a statement that it would “upset the delicate separation-of-powers balance” and “require the archivist to intrude, in an excessive and inappropriate manner, into the activities of an incumbent president and his or her staff.”
The administration also expressed concerns about the cost of setting up systems to preserve not only e-mails but, potentially, instant messages, wikis, blogs and other electronic communications.
Republicans attempted to use the bill to portray Democrats as focused on misguided priorities.
“This is the major bill of the week?” scoffed Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, the House oversight panel’s top Republican. “Not the housing crisis? Not gasoline prices?”
“We have serious concerns about the way the White House is preserving these documents . . . and whether the true purpose of not preserving them is to hide the dealings from the American people,” said Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.).