From the National Coalition for History column of the November 2009 issue of Perspectives on History
The Fiscal 2010 Federal Budget: Prospects for the History and Archives Communities
Lee White, November 2009
Senate Committee Holds Hearings on Archivist Nominee Ferriero
On October 1, 2009, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing to consider the nomination of David S. Ferriero to be the next Archivist of the United States. The hearing was presided over by Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, & International Security.
Ferriero was introduced by Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who had known Ferriero during his tenure as the librarian at Duke University. Senator Carper began with a brief opening statement welcoming the nominee and expressing his two overriding concerns with NARA: electronic records management and the costs associated with operating the presidential library system.
After an opening statement, Mr. Ferriero responded to a round of questions from the chair.
In response to a question about security breaches at NARA, Ferriero stated that one of the challenges the agency faces is in striking the proper balance between providing public access while at the same time protecting sensitive information. He stated that from his own experiences security breaches were most often caused internally. Ferriero noted that NARA has established a security task force and that he would ensure as the archivist that NARA would make security a top priority.
Sen. Carper then asked the nominee what he considered the major challenges NARA faced in managing electronic records. Ferriero responded that the real issue is the lack of standards for handling records across government agencies, which makes ingestion more difficult. He felt NARA needed to be more aggressive and assertive in assuring compliance with existing requirements, and provide more education and training for those employees at federal agencies with responsibility for records management.
The questioning then turned to the topic of the escalating costs of maintaining the presidential library system. Ferriero said he had read the report which NARA had recently submitted to Congress on alternative models for the system. He expressed concerns about the challenges in managing such a decentralized system and the capital costs of maintaining security and infrastructure at so many facilities. He also questioned the sustainability of the current model.
Sen. Carper expressed frustration that most government agencies consider records management an afterthought. He also stated his concerns about overclassification and the backlog of materials awaiting declassification by NARA. Ferriero noted the administration’s support for a National Declassification Center. He felt the pending issuance of a new executive order dealing with classification would alleviate some of the problems. However, Ferriero said a major factor contributing to the delay was overclassification and stressed the need for erring on the side of openness when faced with a classification decision.
Sen. Carper then asked about the importance of maintaining NARA’s reputation for independence and nonpartisanship. Ferriero felt that Congress had expressed its commitment to NARA’s independence by locating the new Office of Government Information Services and the National Declassification Center at the agency. He committed himself to working with Congress if he felt NARA’s independence was being threatened.
Carper concluded his questioning with a question about the nominee’s vision for NARA’s outreach and educational role. Ferriero said that when the new Electronic Records Archive comes online in the near future it will ensure public access 365 days a year. He stated that NARA had a good track record of reaching out to students and teachers that would continue to be a priority under his stewardship of the agency.
Note: Ferriero responded to a series of nearly 60 pre-hearing questions. They can be accessed at http://historycoalition.org/2009/10/02/senate-confirmation-hearing-on-nomination-of-david-ferriero-as-archivist/ferriero-pre-hearing-questions-2009-09-16/
Ferriero’s nomination to be the next Archivist of the United States is considered noncontroversial and he is expected to be confirmed by the Senate sometime this fall.
The Presidential Library System: Alternative Models Proposed
One of the major challenges facing Ferriero when he takes office will be what to do about the presidential library system. In recent years, Congress has been increasingly concerned with the rising costs associated with maintaining the existing 12 libraries and the costs associated with preparing for the new George W. Bush Library. NARA’s base cost of operating the presidential library system in fiscal 2008 was close to $64 million.
On September 25, 2009, NARA submitted a report to Congress setting out alternative models to the current presidential library system. The Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act of 2008 (PL 110-404) had charged NARA with developing a report detailing ways to reduce the financial burden of the libraries on the federal government, improve the preservation of presidential records, and reduce delays in public access to presidential records.
In its report NARA presented Congress with five alternatives and the advantages and disadvantages associated with each model. Earlier this year, NARA requested input on its web site for suggestions for the development of alternative models to the current system, and received over 100 comments, including from the National Coalition for History.
Model 1: The current model (in which both the archival depository and museum are donated to NARA by a library foundation), with revisions to the endowment calculation that would require an endowment based on the total size of the building.
Model 2: A presidential archival depository leased by the government, with a separate museum managed by a foundation.
Model 3: A presidential archival depository donated to NARA by a foundation, a university, or other nonfederal entity, with a separate museum managed by a foundation.
Model 4: A centralized federally funded presidential archival depository (in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area) managed by NARA. Former presidents will build and manage their own museums in a location of their choice.
Model 5: A centralized presidential archival depository funded and managed by NARA and a museum of the presidency (both in Washington, D.C.) built and staffed by NARA. Private funds through a separate foundation or through other fundraising would be required to build and sustain the exhibits and the educational and public programs of the museum.
While NARA did not recommend a preferred model, the report rejected Model 2 as having the highest cost with the lowest benefits.
NARA concluded the only way to reduce costs was to eliminate programs. The most significant cost savings would be achieved through the elimination of the presidential museums, public outreach, and educational programs, with NARA providing governmental support only for the archival and collections management functions for both archives and artifacts.
Presidential libraries represent less than 16 percent of NARA’s budget yet account for 63 percent of visitors to the National Archives. The report stated the most crucial question which NARA and others must resolve before adopting any changes is what the focus of NARA’s mission for the presidential libraries, and the study of the presidency should be.
The Presidential Records Act (PRA) provides each president the discretion to impose, while in office, six restrictions on access that last up to 12 years after the president leaves office. The PRA does not mandate these restrictions, but they can be narrowed or waived after the president leaves office.
After five years, the Presidential Records Act gives the public the right to access presidential records via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). However, for a variety of reasons, especially a lack of resources, NARA has not been able to process the records in a timely manner. Therefore, at the point when presidential records have become subject to request under FOIA, the vast majority of records have not yet been reviewed and publicly released. For example, at the respective five-year points, the staff had processed less than 5 percent of their presidential records at the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Libraries and less than 1 percent at the Clinton Library.
In its original solicitation for public comment NARA had suggested, “Presidential records can be processed more efficiently if they are processed systematically rather than under FOIA during the years in which the Presidential Records Act (PRA) restrictions apply.” NCH and a host of public-interest groups objected to this alternative and it was not presented as an option in the report to Congress.
Instead, NARA believes statutory changes to the PRA would be of some help in limiting delays in processing records. The PRA requires NARA to provide notice to the former and incumbent presidents of its intent to open records. One of the solutions NARA recommends is a statutory cut-off period for notice which should coincide with the death or disability of the former president or after 25 years, whichever is later.
NARA noted it had implemented a number of changes that have streamlined the way FOIA requests are processed. In addition, Congress appropriated funding for 15 additional archival positions last year for the existing libraries with presidential records—Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Congress also appropriated funding for 18 archivists to process the George W. Bush and Cheney records. NARA believes these positions, combined with improvements in the way NARA processes presidential records, should result in the opening of significantly more material.
NARA is also faced with a tremendous backlog of materials awaiting declassification. According to the NARA report, the presidential libraries hold nearly 40 million pages of classified records. The Obama administration will be soon issuing an executive order revamping the entire classification and declassification process. The administration is on record as supporting the creation of a new National Declassification Center to be housed at NARA to centralize, and hopefully expedite, the declassification process.
—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at email@example.com.