Unfinished Business

Arnita A. Jones, March 2009

As readers of Perspectives on History know, on his first day in office President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order on Presidential Records that ended the practice, instituted during the early years of the Bush Administration, of allowing former presidents, their heirs, or designated others, to assert claims of executive privilege in order to deny access to certain portions of their records. That same day, the president issued a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and another on Transparency and Open Government. The FOIA memorandum calls for the new attorney general to issue guidelines for implementing his administration’s principles of openness and transparency in complying with citizens’ FOIA requests. The second memorandum calls for the development of an “Open Government Directive” to be issued to federal agencies implementing principles of government “transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”

These symbolic acts came as welcome news to the American Historical Association, whose members have worked hard over many years to maintain historians’ and the public’s right of access to government records. Our engagement with the presidential records in particular began more than 35 years ago with a lawsuit filed in September of 1974 in conjunction with several other groups that petitioned to have President Nixon’s White House records declared public property, preserved in the National Archives, and made accessible to citizens in a fair and equitable manner. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court and established for the first time the public’s right of ownership of the records created by the highest office holder in the nation. This principle was eventually enacted into law as the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978.

Obama’s first day was a promising start, offering encouragement that the erosion of the public’s right to know might be reversed and that a new era in government openness was beginning. No one should assume, however, that further progress on this or other issues of interest to historians will be achieved without substantial effort and continued vigilance. Take the PRA itself, for example. Over the last several months, the AHA has been one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit aimed at preserving the records of the Office of Vice President Richard Cheney, whose assertions that he is member of both the legislative and executive branches of government have given rise to concern that his “legislative” records may be considered personal records and removed from the reach of the PRA. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly granted a preliminary injunction last September, requiring the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to preserve the records in question while the case was pending, but her final ruling, handed down just hours before the inauguration of the new administration, concluded that she was bound to apply the PRA as enacted, with only narrow areas of oversight relating to the vice president’s document preservation decisions. “The remedy,” she observed, “lies with Congress and not this Court.”

In fact, the Congress has been working for several years on a remedy for these and other issues posed by recent interpretations of the PRA that its original authors had not foreseen. The House of Representatives passed amendments to the Act in 2007, but in the Senate a similar bill reported out of committee was held up by Republican senators and threatened with a presidential veto. In January, the new House of Representatives again passed a bill (H.R. 35) to amend the PRA and there is hope that the Senate may soon follow suit. (See Lee White’s Coalition Column in the February 2009 issue of Perspectives on History for further information). In the light of President Obama’s early pledge to respect the spirit of the PRA, some wonder whether further legislation is needed. But what a stroke of the pen in an executive order can accomplish, another stroke in another administration can take away. We need the legislation.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) itself, which houses all the records of government, also requires attention. Last month we published a list of priorities for the new President of the United States and the Archivist of the United States he will soon (we hope) nominate. These include addressing the backlog of an estimated 800,000 cubic feet of unprocessed records as well as continuing the new National Declassification Initiative. NARA also has on its plate the completion and successful deployment the Electronic Records Archive (ERA), a critically needed system that will preserve and make accessible the growing body of digital records.


Marshalling the resources for this work and managing an agency that is increasingly understaffed will be a challenge for any leader. Allen Weinstein, who retired in December of last year for health reasons, describes the agency’s “primary mission… (as) maximizing public access to the records of all three branches of government while protecting at all costs this agency’s rock-solid nonpartisan integrity.” Historians and archivists need to keep a close eye on the Archivist nomination process while also paying careful attention to the appropriations process to insure that the growing national budget deficit does not compromise the funding NARA needs to do its important work.

The nomination for head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) should also be a major concern for historians and their colleagues in other humanities disciplines. There is some concern prompted by talk of a new Cabinet level “culture czar” coming from the arts community and cultural agency transition team leader William Ivey, former National Endowment for the Arts chair, but for the present there seems no groundswell of support for the idea. The transition team at NEH, led by Rutgers University historian Clement Price, finished its work and turned in its report in late January. According to recent news stories it includes a call for a stronger peer-review system at the NEH, a more transparent review process, and a return to focus on the agency’s core programs rather than high profile and expensive national programs such as Picturing America. Supporters of NEH in the National Humanities Alliance will likely ask for $200 million this year to address the erosion of the agency’s budget over many years. The Alliance is emphasizing new initiatives on international and global perspectives in the application of humanities knowledge and scholarship, as well as increased innovative use of digital technologies in research, education, and preservation. The 2009 Humanities Advocacy Day, of which the AHA is a sponsor, is March 10–11. It is not too late to register at www.nhalliance.org/events/2009-conference/registration and support this small but important federal program.

The Teaching American History grants funded at $119 million this year within the Department of Education are at particular risk, I think. Senator Robert F. Byrd, who cares so passionately about this program and about improving history education, has had to give up the chair of the appropriations committee in the Senate because of failing health, and the Office of Management and Budget is now demanding more and better evidence of its usefulness. Many AHA members who have participated in the program as faculty, teachers, or in some other capacity, have shared with me their enthusiasm and optimism about its accomplishments, in particular the ongoing school-university relationships that it has developed. It is now perilously past time for teachers at all levels to contact their legislators and let them know that the Teaching American History grants are making a difference and should continue.

The Foreign Relations of the United States series, a small but important program within the Department of State, has caused a stir recently. (For more information see the January issue of Perspectives on History). According to a recent blog post on History News Network, “in terms of government declassification, the Historian’s Office is the ‘little engine that could’—a small government office that often pulls the whole government’s process of declassification forward.” The job of declassifying foreign policy documents is never easy because agreement has to be obtained by other agencies besides the Department of State—the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and others. In 1991 the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (now the National Coalition for History) successfully lobbied Congress to create the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, which monitors the overall compilation and editorial process of the series and advises on all aspects its preparation and declassification.

The program came into the news late last year when the chair of its oversight committee, former AHA president Wm. Roger Louis, resigned in protest citing mismanagement by the head of the office. A promised investigation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been completed, but as of early February it is not clear whether any action will be taken. Historians of American Foreign Relations and others interested in maintaining the integrity of the series should make their views known to the Department of State and their representatives in the Congress.

Elsewhere in the federal government are many other programs of interest to historians, from the Library of Congress, with its peerless collections and innovative digitization projects, to the National Park Service, where scholars of American history have made an increasingly significant impact on interpreting historic sites over recent years, to the Smithsonian Institution which, after years of scandal and controversy, has recently come under new management. All are chronically underfunded. Federal government support for the Smithsonian museums, for example, now covers only personnel costs. Support for collections and exhibits must come from private fund raising, likely to become an even more difficult task in the next several years, at least.

An early version of the stimulus package included $200 million for work on the Washington mall, including infrastructure investment in some of the buildings of the Smithsonian Institution. That part of the package was one of the first items to be deleted. As I write, the Senate is voting on several amendments to the Economic Stimulus bill. Despite emergency action by the museum community, it just passed Senate Amendment 309, offered by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), which states: “None of the amounts appropriate or otherwise made available by the Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquariums, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center and highway beautification project.” Our members in public history have some education work to do.

Other programs of interest appeal particularly to historians in the higher education community, including Title VI of the Higher Education Act in the Department of Education budget, which funds international education and the Fulbright programs, which underwrite international exchange. Various coalition groups which the AHA supports, such as the National Coalition for History (http://historycoalition.org), the National Humanities Alliance (www.nhalliance.org), and the Consortium of Social Science Associations (www.cossa.org), often work in close collaboration with higher education advocacy groups such as the Association of American Universities, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, and others. The real action, however, is at the individual higher education institutions, which together, according to a recent news report, rank 7th among industries in the amount spent on lobbying efforts, nearly $100 million. Ask your university government relations officers how much of those lobbying funds are spent on the humanities. And then get acquainted and point out the value of the work you and your colleagues are doing and the federal agencies that support it.

The AHA has been in the business of advocacy its entire 125 years of existence. This is work that has many disappointments but often gives cause for satisfaction as well. One thing is clear: in these perilous economic times, it is more important than ever that historians speak out and get involved.

—Arnita A. Jones is executive director of the AHA.