Yesterday the Clinton Foundation announced it no longer would accept donations from corporate or foreign entities should Hillary Clinton be elected president, responding to criticism for “potentially allowing donors to seek special access through [Clinton’s] government post.” Unremarked upon is the danger of having a foundation linked to a president accepting any donations during his or her term of office, a circumstance that led to major scandals in the last three administrations.
Over the last 70 years, every outgoing president raised money for a presidential library. George W. Bush hauled in a Texas-sized $500 million, and Barack Obama expects to reach a cool billion in his already-underway efforts, though the president himself promised he personally will not fund-raise in office. With the existing Clinton Foundation, potential president Hillary Clinton may have a head start. The libraries aren’t just a repository for presidential papers; they are an attempt at telling the story of a presidency from the president’s perspective.
Departing presidents may raise unlimited funds while still in office from anyone, anywhere — from the Smiths to the Saudis — and don’t have to disclose a penny.
As you might imagine, these cozy going-away gifts — and the scandals that follow — irk members of Congress. In 2001, Bill Clinton was accused of trading a pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who illegally traded with Iran during the oil embargo and was a gold medal tax evader, for a $450,000 library donation from Rich’s ex-wife. In 2008, a businessman close to George W. Bush was caught on video trading access to administration staff for a $250,000 library donation. Even George H. W. Bush ran into trouble in 1993. In an effort to avoid controversy, President Obama is voluntarily disclosing some of the donations, but it’s not enough.
The Presidential Library Donation Reform Act, a bipartisan bill that would move these fundraising efforts out of the shadows, requires quarterly disclosure of the sources of donations over $200 while the president is in office, up until the library is finished. The bill has made it past all hurdles in the House and but one in the Senate, a vote on the floor — the domain of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s sat on the legislation for over a year.
Just about everyone — except perhaps those in the market for a presidential pardon or favor — agree that more transparency in presidential library funding is a good idea. Barack Obama, during a primary debate against Hillary Clinton in 2007, endorsed the bill.
Even Secretary Clinton, as Senator, endorsed a similar albeit less rigorous bill, although she balked at voluntary disclosure during her debates with Obama.
When the Senate resumes in September, Sen. McConnell can address the apparent corruption problems with presidential library fundraising by scheduling a vote on the Senate floor. Let’s see whether he can show that his Senate is one that can get commonsense things done.
— Written by Daniel Schuman