The Coalition Column
109th Congress Adjourns Sine Die: Some Tasks Left Unfinished
Bruce Craig, January 2005
On December 9, 2004, the 109th Congress, meeting in a lame duck session, finished putting its final touches on the nine remaining spending bills that will fund the federal government in fiscal year 2005. As many Hill insiders expected, Congress consolidated those remaining measures into an enormous (over 3,000 pages!) omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 4818/ H. Rept. 108–792). This $388 billion catchall bill sets overall agency spending limits and also incorporates an anticipated across-the-board cut of 0.83 percent for all non-security related spending. As is usually the case, few members know precisely what has been added to the bill that numbers 3,016 pages. One such provision (see story "Byrd Mandates Constitutional Instruction" below) mandates a new instructional program on the Constitution in schools that receive federal assistance each Constitution Day.
Overall, cultural agencies did comparatively well considering the existence of a budget environment constrained by fairly stringent budgetary reduction goals. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) emerged from the conference with $138.06 million—a little above the $135 million it received last year. Much of the new funding will support programmatic aspects of the "We the People" initiative.
Other numbers of interest to the history and archives community: The Department of Education’s "Teaching American History" program will get another $120 million, thanks to Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). The Institute of Museum and Library Services will get an increase of $9.5 million over fiscal 2004 but $12.7 million less than the president’s request. The Office of Museum Services is slated for $34.8 million and the library counterpart is to receive $207 million. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will get about $267 million in operating funds including $35.914 for the Electronic Records Archive. The National Historical and Publications Commission ends up with $5 million for its discretionary grant program—down 50 percent from last fiscal year’s high of $10 million (a full authorization) but higher than the president’s proposed and House agreed to figure of $3 million.
The Smithsonian Institution will get $615 million including $44 million for the final renovation of the Patent Office Building and $4 million to continue planning and hiring staff for the future National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is funded at the president’s request level of $8.987 million.
The National Park Service (NPS) gets an $84 million increase in operational funds to $1.707 billion. The Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) gets a total of $72.750 million, a cut of nearly $1 million. When compared to last year’s totals, the "Save America’s Treasures" program is trimmed by $2 million to $30 million, and the president’s proposed $10 million "Preserve America" initiative, gets nothing. The state historic preservation offices get about a $1.5 million increase to $36 million; grants to tribal governments will realize an increase of $287,000 to $3.250 million.
Alexander’s History Bill
Shortly before adjourning for the year, Congress passed the "American History and Civics Education Act of 2004" (H.R. 5360) a legislative effort spearheaded by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). The bill—the first legislation introduced in Congress by freshman Senator Alexander—creates summer academies for outstanding teachers and students of American history and civics. It also provides a statutory authorization for National History Day.
Declassification Board Reauthorized
In the final hours of the 109th Congress, lawmakers also reached agreement on an intelligence reform bill (S. 2845), considered a landmark measure that restructures the nation’s intelligence community. It passed the House by a vote of 336 to 75 and the Senate by 89 to 2. Of particular interest to historians, scholars, and government openness advocates in the 600-page bill is the statutory re-authorization and "improvement" of authorities of Public Interest Declassification Board.
This Board originally was envisioned by its creator Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan as being central to advancing the cause of government openness. A watered down version was authorized back in 2000 (title VII of P.L. 106-567) but the Bush administration declined to name members to the Board until last month just two months before the board was to sunset. At the urging of the National Coalition for History and other organizations concerned about government openness, Congress reshaped the old PIDB and created a more powerful board with fairly significant declassification powers. But after the White House registered its objections to the proposed revisions, Congress backed off of some of the proposed changes and compromised on the language that is embodied in Section 1102 of the Intelligence Reform Act.
The "new and improved" PIDB reports to the president and is empowered to review and make recommendations to the president with respect to any Congressional committee or presidential request "to declassify certain records or to reconsider a declination to declassify specific records." In other words the board cannot order the declassification of records in general, but it can act on requests from the president or from a congressional committee. The White House has now named its appointees to the board, but Congress has yet to name its representatives (see "White House Names Members to Declassification Board" in NCH Washington Update 10:37, September 16, 2004).
Weinstein Still Not Confirmed
Finally, Senate action on the nomination of professor Allen Weinstein to become Archivist of the United States did not materialize as some had expected. While the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee was prepared to advance the nomination for Senate confirmation a "hold" was placed on the nomination by an anonymous senator, thereby keeping the nomination from being advanced to the floor. Consequently, unless the president opts to make a recess appointment, final Senate approval of the nomination will not take place until the 109th Congress which is scheduled to convene January 2005.
In a telephone interview, Weinstein expressed gratitude to the Senate Committee for unanimously discharging his nomination and also expressed thanks to the various organizations that have supported his nomination. He plans to continue meeting informally with history and archive groups until he is confirmed in the new year.
Shortly before Congress acted on the final $388 billion Omnibus Appropriation spending bill, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the Senate’s unofficial constitutional scholar, inserted language into the measure requiring that any and all educational institutions that receive federal monies must offer its students an instructional program on the U.S. Constitution each 17 September (Constitution Day). The measure will apply to all public and private institutions—including colleges and universities—that receive federal money.
Becky Timmons, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, said college leaders are concerned that the provision could set a precedent in which future Congresses would feel free to issue additional mandatory curricular requirements; the U.S. Department of Education is expressly prohibited from establishing a national curriculum. The language of the rider does not specify how the instruction should be carried out, though the Department of Education is expected to issue a rule or letter of guidance to colleges and schools in the coming weeks.
Byrd was motivated to take this action as he firmly believes that Americans need to better understand the Constitution and its importance. "We can build upon the respect and reverence we still hold for our Constitution," the Senator said. "But we had better start now, before, through ignorance and apathy, even that much slips away from us."
Byrd’s reverence for the Constitution is well known on Capitol Hill. He habitually carries a copy of the document in an inside breast pocket of his suit, and he has been know to flourish it during heated arguments on the Senate floor.
—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.