Change in agreement keeps Biden's Senate records secret in archives

Joe Biden is centering his campaign to become the Democrat Party’s nominee in the 2020 presidential race on his vast experience in political life. With over 40 years in elected office under his belt, it’s a predictable theme. Forget about looking too closely into his actual record on any given topic, though, because his Senate record is sealed.

Eight years ago Biden donated a “massive trove” of Senate records to the University of Delaware, home of Biden School of Public Policy and Administration.

The collection of documents that Biden donated to his alma mater fills 1,875 boxes and also includes 415 gigabytes of electronic records. It includes committee reports, drafts of legislation and correspondence.

At the time of the donation, the university’s then-president, Patrick Harker, thanked Biden for providing “an abundance of materials that will illuminate decades of U.S. policy and diplomacy and the vice president’s critical role in its development.”

At the time of the donation, the university declared the agreement stipulated that Biden’s records be sealed “for two years after Biden retires from public office.” Conveniently, just one day before Biden announced his candidacy in the Democrat primary, the University of Delaware changed its description of that agreement.

Instead of citing his departure from “public office,” the university said the documents would not be made public until two years after Biden “retires from public life” or after Dec. 31, 2019, whichever is later. It did not define what is considered “public life.”

“The entire collection is unavailable,” said Andrea Boyle Tippett, a spokeswoman for the University of Delaware. “Its contents will become available, as the website indicates, when Mr. Biden retires from public life.”

“As he is currently running for office, he is in public life,” she said. “Since retirement for anyone, not just public figures, takes different forms, I can’t speculate beyond that.”

So, the agreement went from when Biden retires from public office to when Biden retires from public life. That’s the difference between no longer holding public office and death. After his very long public career, including a two-term stint as Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden will be in “public life” for the rest of his life. All he has to do is show up on any public street or in any public place and strangers will clamor to snap a picture of him. That makes him a public figure living a public life.

The distinction is too cute by half since it was deliberately made the day before he officially launched his political comeback. Under the original agreement, as it has been reported, the archives would be available to the public two years after he retired from public office. Doesn’t that make them available two years after 2016? Any regular person reading that description would think so if you ask me. It looks like Biden and his team thought so too, otherwise, the specific wording wouldn’t have been changed. It’s very convenient indeed.

The university is not releasing the original agreement or any changes that have been made. It cites justification of that decision because the agreement is not a public document. They do not share donor information with the public. The campaign denies they requested the change. That begs the question – why was the change made?

It’s not unusual that candidates run for office while past records are kept secret but Biden’s record is unusually long. All we have to do is look at Trump’s immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, to know that. Obama’s records from his school days and his medical records were sealed. The guy who called his administration the most transparent of any administration didn’t set that example himself.

When Mitt Romney (R) left the Massachusetts governor’s office, some of his top aides purchased and removed their state-issued computer hard drives, and emails were wiped from a server. The U.S. Senate papers of Al Gore (D) were not made available during his 2000 presidential campaign, and they remain private more than 18 years after he left federal office. In 2014, the Clinton Library in Little Rock released a large cache of records related to Hillary Clinton after questions were raised about why some 33,000 pages of documents dating to her days as first lady hadn’t been released sooner.

“They aren’t keen on opening a lot of information when someone is running for office,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written several books on American history. “I wish they were wide open for the public, but alas when politicians start running for the president, they try to make sure there’s not that kind of transparency or documentation.”

Biden is busy re-writing his past history in public office now that he’s running for president. Think of all the issues and decisions that were made during his time in the Senate. His papers and computer files would shed light on issues as far-reaching as the Supreme Court hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas, the Iraq war, the 1994 crime bill, and working with old-school Democrats now known as segregationalists. The kerfuffle with Kamala Harris that is taking a toll on his polling after the first Democrat debate is a good example of a part of his past record that could be cleared up by his written records.

Biden has at times played down or misrepresented his record — saying last weekend, for example, that he did not support more funding for state prisons, even though in 1994 he argued for $6 billion in such funding.

On busing, his current campaign aides have argued that Biden never opposed the right of local communities to implement voluntary busing plans, a distinction that Biden often did not make in interviews and news articles in which he called busing “an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me.”

Biden also has argued recently that he fought against everything that a group of segregationist senators stood for — even though letters found in the archives of Sen. James O. Eastland, a longtime Democratic senator from Mississippi, illustrate how Biden solicited his help on antibusing legislation. Biden’s own papers could include additional correspondence with Eastland, as well as other segregationist senators whom he served with at the start of his career.

So many questions, so little transparency.