WASHINGTON The Democratic-controlled House, saying the Bush White House has deleted hundreds of thousands of e-mails, including some relevant to congressional investigations, passed legislation Wednesday to tighten controls over electronic messages sent through federal agencies.
"Despite the importance of these records, serious deficiencies exist in the way e-mails are preserved, both by the White House and federal agencies," said bill sponsor Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The White House responded with a veto threat, saying the measure would result in "an excessive and inappropriate" intrusion into the activities of an incumbent president and staff.
Democrats, in explaining the need for the legislation, cited the use by White House officials, including former senior adviser Karl Rove, of Republican National Commmittee e-mail accounts to conduct government business. They said that resulted in the potential destruction of hundreds of thousands of e-mails.
"Whether it is Vice President Cheney's secret Energy Task Force meetings or the coverup of the outing of Valerie Plame, the Bush administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to conduct its affairs in secret and to hide key documents from those investigating wrongdoing," House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., said.
The bill requires the archivist of the United States to establish standards for the capture, management and preservation of White House and other federal agency e-mails. The bill, which covers the executive branch of the government, directs the Archivist to annually certify whether the White House meets records management controls set by the legislation. It passed 286-137 and now goes to the Senate, where its future is uncertain.
The vote came a day after Waxman released a Government Accountability Office report concluding that federal agencies are not sufficiently managing their e-mail records. The GAO said the four agencies it reviewed still rely mainly on print-and-file systems to preserve e-mail records.
The White House, in its statement opposing the bill, said the mandates set out by the bill were vague and would "provide the Archivist with substantial leeway to establish standards that could impose significant costs and burdens on an incumbent administration, which could interfere with a president's ability to carry out his or her constitutional and statutory responsibilities."
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., top Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, added that the White House saw the bill as overturning the historical distinction between agency records and presidential records. The bill would not affect the current administration, he said, and "the White House in this case is protecting the institution, not the Bush administration."
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would cost $155 million over the next five years to implement the legislation.
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