Since 2001, historians and archivists have feared that one of President Bush's executive orders would seriously hinder research on the presidency. After six years of making no real progress in the courts and Congress on the issue, the turnover of Congress to Democrats is having an impact on the issue.
The House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last week approved a bill -- the Presidential Records Act of 2007 -- that would essentially overturn Bush's executive order. The full House could vote on the measure as early as this week. The Bush order gives presidents and former presidents much more control over their records -- and extends that right to a family member when a former president dies. Scholars have raised the possibility that Jenna Bush could someday block access to records about the decision to go to war in Iraq.
The Bush order gives current and former presidents broad latitude to block access to records, and also gives no time limits, so scholars fear that materials could be indefinitely off limits. Bush administration officials have defended the executive order as necessary for national security and have pointed to the millions of documents released since the executive order was signed. But critics have noted that they don't even know what will be held back, and that the volume of presidential records is so large that making many of them available doesn't deal with the needs of history.
While anger over the issue has been widespread among scholars of the presidency since it was issued, the debate over the proposed Bush presidential library at Southern Methodist University has focused more public attention on presidential libraries and access to them.
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