From the Coalition Column of the February 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
What Exactly Does the Coalition Do?
Lee White, February 2011
I recently completed my fourth year as the executive director of the National Coalition for History (NCH). These years have been the most professionally rewarding of my career. In that time I have had the opportunity to work on a diverse and challenging set of issues and the privilege of working with a dedicated enthusiastic group of historians and archivists.
Since its founding in the mid 1970s as the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, our organization has achieved many significant victories. My predecessors, Arnita Jones, Page Putnam Miller, and Bruce Craig, were responsible for many things that historians take for granted today. Their list of legislative accomplishments include the re-establishment of the National Archives independent from the General Services Administration, the creation of the Teaching American History grants program, preventing the elimination of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the creation of a Historical Office in the House of Representatives and many others too numerous to mention.
Despite this tremendous track record over the last 30 years, I am constantly struck by how little the average historian and graduate students know about NCH, or that it even exists. In fact, the most common response I get when I meet historians and tell them what I do is “I didn’t even know we had an organization lobbying for us in Washington.”
The other response I get after I tell folks what I do is, “you must have a really big staff.” The reality is that since its inception the Coalition has been a one-person operation. And with inflation taken into account, NCH’s budget has remained almost constant since its inception in its current form in 1982.
The rise of the internet over that time has made the Coalition more efficient in disseminating information to the profession. For example, anyone can subscribe to NCH’s Washington Update by visiting our web site at www.historycoalition.org. The Washington Update is also accessible through History News Network’s website.
So in answer to the question, “What exactly does the History Coalition do?” I thought that it might interest readers to see a summary of NCH’s 2010 annual report (those interested in seeing the full report as well as the reports for previous years can do so at our web site).
Annual Report on the National Coalition for History for Fiscal Year 2010: A Summary
Legislative Advocacy Federal Appropriations
Before adjourning sine die in late-December, the 111th Congress passed a continuing resolution for fiscal 2011 that runs until March 4, 2011. Federal agency FY 11 budgets were frozen at FY 2010 funding levels. However, the Republican leadership in the House and Senate have pledged to try to attempt to cut the fiscal 2011 budget back to FY 2008 levels when the CR expires next March. As a result, the implications for federal agency programs are not known at this time.
In March 2010, NCH submitted testimony to the House and Senate Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittees on NARA and the NHPRC’s fiscal 2011 proposed budgets. NCH supported the Administration’s proposed funding for the National Declassification Center, Electronic Records Archive and other operational programs. NCH strongly supported the proposed increase in funding to hire additional archival staff. NCH called for $13 million in funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission instead of the Administration’s proposed funding level of $10 million.
Teaching American History Grants
In fiscal 2002, due to the leadership of Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), Congress authorized the “Teaching American History” (TAH) grants program in the Department of Education. Nearly $1 billion of federal dollars have been allocated over the past decade to improve K-12 history education. However, with Senator Byrd’s passing in June the program is now in danger.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was last authorized in 2001 during the Bush administration under the rubric of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Since the law’s enactment a major flaw has been the over-emphasis placed on reading and math at the expense of other subjects, such as history. The No Child Left Behind law’s authorization expired in 2008. However given the host of legislative issues facing Congress in 2010, no action was taken to reauthorize the ESEA.
In March 2010, the White House released “A Blueprint for Reform,” which details the administration’s plans for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Like NCLB, the reform proposal continues to prioritize reading and math over other subjects.
President Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget request to Congress for the Department of Education proposed consolidating 38 existing K–12 education programs into 11 new programs. Under the administration’s budget request, grants for history education would now be part of a new program called “Effective Teaching and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education.” Teaching American History Grants would be consolidated into this new program and would no longer exist as a free-standing budget line item.
The administration proposed $265 million in funding in fiscal 2011 for the new initiative. Although the fiscal 2011 budget request included a $38.9 million increase in funding to support teaching and learning in arts, history, civics, foreign languages, geography, and economics, the administration proposes to combine eight subject-specific grant programs into a single competitive grant program. Unfortunately, under the proposed competitive grant program the various subjects would be pitted against each other for scarce resources.
In July, the National Coalition for History and 10 other NCH members joined forces with over 20 educational organizations representing other K–12 academic disciplines in issuing a statement to Congress and the Administration calling for the continued robust funding of core academic subjects including history. This includes maintenance of discrete funding for each discipline, including Teaching American History grants.
While the Congress did not incorporate the Obama administration’s education budget request into the final fiscal 2011 continuing resolution, it is likely the White House will resubmit the reform plan when the fiscal 2012 budget is released next February.
National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) Reauthorization
NCH urged the passage of the House and Senate bills with an annual authorization for the NHPRC at the $20 million level.
The NHPRC’s authorization expired on September 30, 2009, which had authorized funding at the $10 million level. Legislation (H.R. 5616) was introduced in the House to reauthorize the NHPRC for 5 years through fiscal 2015 at an annual level of $20 million. In July, the Senate passed legislation (S. 2872) to reauthorize the NHPRC at an annual level of $10 million for five years, through fiscal 2014.
On June 7, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and the National Archives held a hearing to consider ways to strengthen the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
Both Republicans on the subcommittee who were present took a hard line against any increase in the authorization level and also argued that the National Archives should focus on its core mission of preserving federal records. They asserted that NHPRC funding should not go to states or other entities to preserve “nonfederal” records.
Witnesses representing six NCH member organizations testified at the hearing including the American Historical Association, Association for Documentary Editing, American Association for State & Local History, Council of State Archivists, Organization of American Historians, and Society of American Archivists.
On July 30, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s scheduled mark up of legislation (H.R. 5616), was postponed indefinitely. Although no official reason was given as to why the bill was pulled from the agenda at the last minute, apparently the Republican members of the committee had planned to offer a number of crippling amendments. These included cutting the authorization level for the NHPRC in the bill to $10 million and limiting eligibility and the scope of projects the NHPRC could fund.
n January 2009, presidential records reform legislation (H.R. 35) was the first bill passed the House. In July 2009, similar legislation cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. However, for the second year in a row Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) continued to place a hold on the bill preventing its consideration in the Senate. Senator Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and General Government Committee, repeatedly tried to convince Senator Sessions to lift his opposition, but to no avail.
NCH will continue to aggressively pursue the passage of a presidential records reform bill in the 112th Congress.
Formula Grants for State and Local Archives
The archival community lobbied throughout the year for the passage of legislation (H.R. 2256, S. 3227) to establish the Partnership for the American Historical Record (PAHR), a state-based formula grant program for archives. NCH has endorsed the bill and assisted their efforts by issuing a legislative alert to those on our mailing list urging them to contact their Members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the bills.
Federal Agency Advocacy
The National Coalition for History continues to play an equally important advocacy role with federal agencies. The NCH has maintained excellent relationships with the Archivist of the United States, the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Chief Historian of the National Park Service, the Director of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the Director of the Teaching American History Grants office at the Department of Education and other key officials in the federal historical and archival bureaucracies.
Processing, Preservation and Declassification of Federal and Presidential Records
NCH collaborated with other stakeholder groups in working to reduce over-classification of government records, increase public access to unclassified records, speed the declassification process and establish standards for the preservation and retrieval of federal and presidential electronic records. NCH will continue to press for the passage of legislation or regulatory action by NARA to establish meaningful records preservation standards and aggressively ensure federal agency compliance.
The National Archives has a 400+ million page backlog of records that need to be processed and declassified. NCH’s input was solicited by NARA’s new National Declassification Center on establishing a prioritization scheme for the declassification of its vast holdings. NCH also participated in meetings with the Directors of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), Electronic Records Archive and Presidential Libraries at the National Archives.
In 2010, NCH continued to advise and monitor the activities of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), the State Department’s Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress, the Advisory Committee on the Electronic Records Archive and the Advisory Committee on Presidential Library-Foundations.
Open Government Initiatives
Throughout 2010, NCH has been involved in collaborative efforts with stakeholders on a number of open government issues. These include:
A letter to the Information Policy Subcommittees in the Senate and House requesting hearings on the apparent destruction of emails relating to the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists. The letter requested the subcommittee to require the Department of Justice to determine how the e-mails could be missing despite the requirements of the Federal Records Act (FRA).
A letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) in support of legislation, S. 3111, the Faster FOIA Act, that would establish a commission to make recommendations to Congress and the President for reducing impediments to the efficient processing of FOIA requests.
A letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in support of H.R. 1387, the Electronic Message Preservation Act. H.R. 1387 directs the Archivist to establish standards for the capture, management, and preservation of White House and agency e-mails, and certification standards for any electronic records management systems implemented at agencies.
A letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in support of H.R. 6026, the Congressionally Mandated Reports Act. The bill will make it easier for the public to find information about how well federal agencies are fulfilling their respective missions, and use the information to hold officials accountable.
A letter to the United States Archivist, David S. Ferriero, strongly encouraging the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to provide the maximum possible electronic access to vital records in the Electronic Records Archive (ERA) as they further develop the system.
Proposed Casino at Gettysburg Battlefield
On July 1, 276 American historians sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in opposition to a proposal to license a casino located one-half mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. Beyond the individual signatories, the American Historical Association, National Coalition for History, National Council on Public History, Organization of American Historians, Society for Military History and Southern Historical Association sent a separate joint-letter of opposition to the Gaming Board. NCH assisted the Civil War Preservation Trust in identifying Civil War historians to be approached in endorsing the letter. The Gaming Board is expected to make a final decision in January 2011.
Education and Outreach Conferences and Presentations
This year the executive director attended—and in some cases participated in panel discussions—at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, Society for Military History, Organization of American Historians, Society for History in the Federal Government, Society of American Archivists and National Council on Public History.
The NCH executive director made a presentation on legislative advocacy during the National Humanities Alliance’s Lobby Day event in March. Humanities advocates visited Capitol Hill and distributed issue briefs and state grant data, and asked members of Congress to support increased funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
The executive director appeared on a panel at the National Archives during a public meeting to discuss the need for a Historian at the agency. The Archivist of the United States has subsequently proposed creating a Historian of the National Archives position.
Publications and Action Alerts
Throughout the year the NCH continued to provide the historical and archival communities with its electronic newsletter, the NCH Washington Update. Subscriptions to the NCH Washington Update have increased to nearly 2,100 and 233 people subscribe via RSS feed. Traffic at the NCH website was approximately 575,000 hits.
We continue to have secondary distribution through the SEDIT list of documentary editors, as well as through a direct link from George Mason University’s History News Network web page.
NCH columns in constituent member publications continue to reach a broad but targeted audience of historians (30,000), museum professionals (10,000), and archivists (4,000) through the publications of its constituent organizations.
Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.