Librarian of Congress Term Limit Awaits House Action

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By Anandashankar Mazumdar

Oct. 16 — A Senate-passed bill to limit the Librarian of Congress to a 10-year term could stall in the House amid Republican turmoil over finding a successor to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), according to observers who spoke to Bloomberg BNA.

The position has achieved a higher profile in the digital age, as copyright issues have become a more public and more politicized realm. Among other duties, the librarian has the authority to create exemptions to anti-circumvention law under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

The library has been criticized recently for failing to update the Copyright Office's computer systems in a way that serves the interests of the public, copyright holders, potential licensees and users of copyright-protected works and Internet users generally.

The legislation (S. 2162) was introduced Oct. 7 by Senate Rules Committee Chairman Roy D. Blunt (R-Mo.). Late that same day, the Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent, a spokesman for Blunt told Bloomberg BNA on Oct. 16.

Sitting Librarian May Be Reappointed 

Brian Hart, Blunt's communications director, said that the bill passed only with one amendment, which added language allowing the president to reappoint a librarian to another term.

Hart said that this had been the intent of the bill in the first place, but the change was made to accommodate concerns on the Senate floor.

Current law does not specify a term of office for the librarian. It states that the librarian will be appointed by the president.

According to an essay on the Library of Congress's website, “Jefferson's Legacy: A Brief History of the Library of Congress”:

No special qualifications are prescribed by law for the job of Librarian of Congress. Nor is a term of office specified, even though in the twentieth century the precedent seems to have been established that a Librarian of Congress is appointed for life.

Timing With Librarian's Retirement ‘Coincidental.'

Senate passage of the bill came just days after the Sept. 30 retirement of James H. Billington, who had served as Librarian of Congress since 1987.

Billington had been subject to criticism for failing to act to improve the information technology infrastructure of the Copyright Office, which is an agency of the library. Maria A. Pallante, the current Register of Copyrights, has called for legislation separating the Copyright Office from the library.

Pamela Samuelson, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail message to Bloomberg BNA that it was a “great idea to limit the term for the Librarian.”

She said that “it must be a result of Billington overstaying his welcome.”

However, Hart emphasized that the timing of the bill's passage was “absolutely coincidental.” He said that setting a term for the librarian has been under discussion since Blunt took over the chairmanship of the Rules Committee in January and the bill was brought to the floor when it was clear that there was no opposition in the Senate.

He said that the issue had been brought up in the Joint Committee on the Library, through which members of both houses of Congress oversee the operations of the Library of Congress.

Blunt Expects President to Assent 

In an Oct. 8 recorded conference call with Missouri journalists, Blunt brought up the passage of S. 2162 the previous evening and said that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the committee's ranking member, had worked with him to do “what we needed to to make sure we could do this without objection.”

“The Librarian of Congress has substantial say over how copyright law is enforced, has substantial say about how information is shared with people we all work for,” Blunt said during the conference call.

He said that he had been in contact with the White House and believed that the president would be ready to sign the bill if it passes the House.

Approval of Concept by Observers 

Marybeth Peters, who served as Register of Copyrights under Billington from 1994 to 2010, told Bloomberg BNA that she believed that the legislation was a good idea.

“I think maybe a 10-year term is a good thing,” she said. “Institutions do well with new blood coming in at different times and 10 years is a good time for maybe major changes to be needed. Would I have come up with it? No. But I think it's not a bad idea.”

Samuelson's view was similar.

“A 10 year term is long enough to allow a Librarian to initiate and carry out ambitious projects,” A term limit will also make it possible for there to be more accountability in this office. It's such an important job that it should be more than a sinecure,” Samuelson said.

Setting a term limit also helps ensure that the librarian stays abreast of technology, one observer said.

“I think it makes sense, given that copyright is such a technologically driven area of the law these days. I think Congress wants to have someone who is current with technological changes,” Jonathan D. Reichman of Kenyon & Kenyon LLP, New York, told Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anandashankar Mazumdar in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Wilczek in Washington at

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Peters and Reichman are members of this publication's board of advisors.