A bill to update federal laws governing the management of presidential and other government documents to reflect the ubiquitous use of electronic forms of communication came one step closer to passage on May 21 when it was approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014 (H.R. 1233) passed the House of Representatives in January and is expected to be considered by the full Senate in the coming weeks.
If signed by the President, the bipartisan measure would replace requirements for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to accept specific media types, such as audio and audiovisual records, with a generalized requirement to receive “recorded information.” It would also add digital reproductions to the categories of authorized reproductions for federal agency recordkeeping, authorize NARA to create centers to digitize records, and add deletion, corruption, and erasure to the current list of allowable methods for destroying federal records.
“Despite the rapid migration over the last several decades toward electronic communication and recordkeeping, federal recordkeeping laws are still focused on the media in which a record is preserved, not the information that constitutes the record itself,” wrote the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in its report to the House. “To correct this flaw, this legislation will shift the onus of recordkeeping onto the record and not the media it is contained in as a way to better enable NARA, and other agencies, to handle growing amounts of electronic communication.”
The legislation also addresses a number of potential records security issues by further restricting access to presidential records for those convicted of an archives-related crime and by explicitly codifying requirements for federal employees to file electronic communications regarding official business done through personal messaging accounts with their agency.
Separate from the management of electronic communications, the legislation also allows a former president to request that an incoming president maintain the privileged status of records that would otherwise be made public by the National Archives.
In the absence of this legislation, “the process for dealing with claims of privilege by a former president has been left to the discretion of each incoming president through the issuance of executive orders,” government transparency groups wrote in a 2011 letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Those orders have varied widely, and have had an impact on the public’s access to presidential records.”