The Coalition Column

Symposium Raises Concerns Over Disposition of Congressional Papers

Bruce Craig, January 2006

In October 2005, the John H. Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University convened a special commemorative symposium to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the enactment of Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), which assured federal ownership of the presidential tapes and papers (in the context, specifically, of the records of the Nixon presidency). The PRMPA eventually gave rise to the Presidential Records Act (PRA), a law presently on the books that assures that the public papers of all presidents (beginning with Ronald Reagan) belong to the American people. But there was a larger, far more important purpose to the meeting. In the words of the conference convener John Brademas, who served in the House of Representatives from 1959 to 1981 and was responsible for legislation that gave rise to the PRA, the time had come for the federal government "to fashion a more rational, orderly public policy for dealing with the papers of senators and congressmen."

After welcoming comments by Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein, two panels focused on the history, content, and relevance of the PRMPA as well as the PRA and discussed their impact on the work of historians, archivists, and other scholars. During the second panel, Nancy Beck Young, associate professor of history at McKendree College, stressed the importance of preserving congressional collections. She depressed many in the room with her listing of dozens of collections relating to former members of Congress that have been lost or destroyed.

Young's presentation served as a perfect segue to the symposium's last panel. It dealt specifically with the potential for creating a more effective public policy for archiving the papers of senators, representatives, and other administration officials whose papers are not presently viewed as property of the U.S. government.

In his presentation, John Constance, director of congressional affairs at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), expressed his doubts that Congress would ever embrace legislation that would turn congressional records (now viewed as personal property) into public property. Ray Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University and the current president of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (a relatively new national organization composed of 40-plus institutions dedicated to preserving the papers of members of Congress), discussed the hopes, plans, and programs his organization has in its ongoing efforts to obtain some federal assistance. For example, the association has been exploring with NARA (specifically, with the National Historical Publications and Records Commission) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) options that could lead to some federal financial support for a congressional papers projects.

Senate Archivist Karen Paul's upbeat presentation suggested that the problems relating to public ownership of congressional records are not as overwhelming as they have been in the past. She noted that members have begun to recognize the importance of preserving their records for posterity and have been voluntarily making arrangements with various institutions to insure their preservation. Also, great strides have been made in the development and refinement of records management guidance; a great many technical issues relating to establishment of collections (such as standards for access and deeds of gifts) have been fleshed out by archives professionals over the last two decades and that applying these principles to members' papers is no longer so daunting. Paul went so far as to say that to an extent we already have a policy for the papers of public officials, "but it is not backed by the power of statute."

So what continue to be the major stumbling blocks to implementing a more systematic, legislatively sanctioned policy toward the preservation of members' papers? First, members of Congress currently regard everything their offices produce as personal papers; they have concerns (some legitimate, some not) about the disposition of their papers as well as questions about access and confidentiality. Second, there are unresolved questions relating to the implementation of aspects of the Internal Revenue tax code relating to deductibility of such "donations" by public servants. Third, as evidenced by John Constance's presentation, there are legitimate hesitations on the part of NARA officials to take on the onerous task of caring for members' papers, even as a last resort. The potential impact on the agency's budget is staggering in that it may well entail huge records storage and processing costs—expenses that would stress the agency's already meager financial resources.

So what is the future of congressional records? Perhaps Congress will someday opt to enact legislation to address the issue. During the conference Brademas noted that in the past Congress has considered a legislative fix. For example, legislation was introduced by Representatives Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.) and Thomas A. Luken (D-Ohio) in 1974, seeking to direct that the "public documents" of all elected federal officials be turned over to the federal government, but nothing came of their effort. In 1977, a National Study Commission on the Records and Documents of Federal Officials produced a final report that recommended that papers of all federal officials should be treated as property of the United States. But again, this aspect of the commission's recommendations was not embraced by Congress, and consequently, as Brademas noted, "only the PRA was enacted."

There is no doubt that recently, federal agencies have demonstrated a deepening interest in trying to do something to address this issue. The National Archives, the NHPRC, and the NEH, as well as cooperating nonfederal partners such as the Society of American Archivists Congressional Papers Roundtable and the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress, continue to discuss options and strive to do what they can to preserve what they can of the most important collections of congressional papers. But maybe the time has come for Congress, once again, to inject itself into the discussion and address this difficult issue once and for all as it should have 30 some years ago.

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