From The Coalition Column of the April 2004 Perspectives

News Briefs, April 2004

Bruce Craig, April 2004

House to Fill Historian Position

Nearly a decade after Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) abolished the position of “Historian of the House,” a job posting was quietly posted in February on the employment web pages of several professional history organizations. The position advertised: “Historian, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives.” Is this the elusive “Historian of the House” slot, the counterpart to the Historian of the Senate position currently occupied by Richard Baker, which historians have been long awaiting?

For a number of years, Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl has been quietly rebuilding the capabilities of his office to meet the history-related service needs desired by members of the Congress. Recently, Trandahl moved what was previously known as the Historical Services Unit from the clerk’s Legislative Resources Center and created what is now a 14-person Office of History and Preservation headed by the chief of the Office of History and Preservation, Kenneth Kato. Today, Kato’s operation focuses on meeting the history, archival, curatorial, and historic preservation needs of members of the House. To a great extent, Kato’s office fills the void created when Gingrich dismantled the historian’s office in 1995. Through the reorganization, Trandahl also made the clerk’s historical services function more closely resemble the organizational status of its counterpart in the U.S. Senate. Consequently, today archival and curatorial services, historical publications, and preservation are vital parts of the clerk’s operations. All that appeared to be missing in the panoply of expertise was a history specialist.

The need for a House historian has long been a concern for the historical community. But with the evolution of Kato’s office, the line of authority and nature of duties undertaken by that office, it is clear that the historian scheduled to be hired will not have the same authority, nor function in the same way that the Historian of the Senate does. Nevertheless, many within the historical community are pleased to see the House finally is on the verge of hiring a professional historian.

Presidential Sites Grant Bill Introduced

Good news for presidential sites! On March 4, 2004, Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio) in cooperation with his Democratic colleague Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) introduced companion legislation (H.R. 3903) to Sen. Mike DeWine’s (R- Ohio) bill (S. 1748)—The Presidential Sites Improvement Act.” Both legislative initiatives seek to create an innovative partnership with public and private entities by providing $5 million a year to assist sites associated with American presidents.

The legislation basically does two things: first, it authorizes appropriations of up to $5 million annually for five years in federal grants administered by the National Park Service for presidential sites. Most of the money is set aside for properties with operating budgets under $700,000 though the bill also sets aside some funds for emergency assistance. Grants require an equivalent dollar-for-dollar non-federal match. Second, the bill creates a five-member presidential sites commission that would make grant funding recommendations to the Secretary of the Interior.

There are over 130 historic properties that can be classified as “presidential historic sites.” About 45 of them are operated and/or funded (partially or in toto) by the federal government. Given the existing state funding crisis and declining tourism dollars caused by unemployment and economic setbacks, in some states (like Ohio) virtually all the nonfederal presidential sites have little cash and enormous maintenance needs. Gillmor’s bill, like DeWines’ seeks to assist by providing matching grants to help address the long-term maintenance, interpretive, and other preservation-related needs of such sites.

— Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.