Former President Barack Obama recently released the new design for his Presidential Center in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park. The main building has been widely panned as a squat, stumpy version of the stately Washington Monument. Adding insult to eyesore, Illinois taxpayers may also be on the hook for as much as $100 million in infrastructure spending related to the project.
However, in a rare instance, federal taxpayers may actually catch a break on this latest boondoggle. This site was originally intended to include Obama’s presidential library, but a penny-pinching change in the center’s architectural layout may lay the groundwork for needed reform in the presidential library system.
The idea behind the presidential libraries makes sense: They are meant to be repositories where researchers and the general public have access to historical documents. In reality, they’ve essentially become shrines to ex-presidents. As Juan Williams described it, the existing setup “opens the government’s check book to being used to glorify ex-presidents.”
The modern system dates to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who promoted the concept of privately-built but publicly maintained presidential libraries. In 1939, the first charter was enacted for his own archival storehouse. The process for establishing federal support for the system was formalized in the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. The libraries are constructed with private funds, typically raised by a foundation established by a president before leaving office, and turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration. The facilities then are jointly administered by the foundation and the Archives.
As also happened with so many other programs dreamed up during FDR’s administration, the costs skyrocketed. In 1955, the nascent system cost $64,000. By 1985, operating costs for the expanded network approached $16 million. The price tag led to reforms in 1986 requiring private support for each library through endowments equal to 20 percent of the costs to acquire, construct, and maintain the facility. This threshold was increased to 40 percent in 2002, then 60 percent in 2008. Despite those reforms, by 2017 the system included 13 libraries costing $110 million in federal funding.
In anticipation of the Obama presidential library breaking ground, NARA gathered and, with the assistance of the Department of Defense, shipped 16,000 cubic feet of textual records and more than 32,000 artifacts to a Chicago suburb at a cost of $300,000. Storage and security of the records at the temporary private facility cost $223,000 per month.
But then the Obama Foundation determined that designing its new library to meet the architectural standards for federal archive repositories was too expensive. Breaking from recent tradition, the foundation instead decided that the Library Building and the Obama Center would not include a library of his presidential records. In other words, all those documents were shipped to Illinois for naught.
Despite the shipping and storage expenses over the past year, the revised plan could save money for federal taxpayers over the long run. Under an agreement announced between the NARA and the Obama Foundation, the presidential records will be maintained at an existing NARA facility and the foundation will pay NARA to digitize the records and make them available online — a win for many researchers as well as taxpayers, and a model for future efforts.
The direct costs are not the only reason to consider reforming the system. There is often unclear overlap between the public and private administration of each library. Although publicly-supported, the libraries are run by foundations tied to the president and exhibits highlight the positive aspects of the president’s time in office and often overlook the negative.
The fundraising during a president’s waning time in office also leads to concerns that donors are attempting to buy favor. For example, before leaving the White House, former President Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, whose ex-wife happened to donate $450,000 to his presidential library.
The Obama Foundation may not have intentionally set out to save taxpayers' money. But under its current agreement with NARA, no federal funding should be required for the operation and maintenance of the center. Without the presidential records and artifacts, and without the federal funding, the center will instead be devoted to its mission to “shape, together, what it means to be a good citizen in the 21st century.” Its onsite forum will be a place “where people of all backgrounds can come together for programming.”
That’s all fine, so long as it’s not on the taxpayers’ tab.
Demian Brady is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is director of research at the National Taxpayers Union.
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