History Coalition Active, Even as Government Stalls
Lee White, November 2013
This article was written on the first day of fiscal year 2014, as the process of shutting down the federal government had just begun. Once again the appropriations process was held hostage to partisan brinksmanship by both parties. Looming ahead, if Congress fails to act, is another mandatory round of across-the-board cuts (known as sequestration) if a fiscal year 2014 budget is not passed by January 1, 2014. It's estimated this would add an additional $20 billion in cuts to those imposed last year.
Lest you think the partisan budget battles of recent years are the exception and that Congress was much more responsible back in the good old days, think again. Over the last 37 years, Congress passed and the president signed all appropriations bills by the start of the federal fiscal year only four times: in fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997. The most recent year before 1977, according to a floor statement by the late Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) was back in 1948!
I will leave it to historians, political scientists, and pundits to put the dysfunctional congressional appropriations process in context. But one thing is certain: while the pie has shrunk, federal history programs have still managed to retain a piece. And were it not for the continued advocacy of the wide constituency of the National Coalition for History (NCH) membership, that most assuredly would not be the case.
That has been especially true for the survival of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). While funding has been reduced over the past few years, NCH's advocacy has been instrumental in ensuring the NHPRC has at least received funding at or above what the Obama administration has proposed.The name National Coalition for History has always been somewhat of a misnomer; NCH advocates for programs that benefit more than just historians. In fact, NCH derives its strength and reach from the diversity of its membership groups-groups that include archivists, political scientists, documentary editors, preservationists, educators, students, researchers, and other stakeholders both in the United States and abroad. And even among historians, NCH covers the breadth of the field beyond the academy including public historians, federal agency historians, and related fields. The coalition also includes private sector entities such as the History Channel and History Associates, Inc.
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 reestablishing the National Archives independent from the General Services Administration, creating the Teaching American History grants program, preventing the elimination of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, creating a historical office in the House of Representatives, and many others too numerous to mention.
While advocating for federal funding will always remain at the core of our efforts, over the past few years the coalition has diversified the focus of its advocacy into preservation, openness and transparency, and state and local issues with some notable successes.
State and Local Issues
In early September 2012, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced the closure of the state archives to the public on November 1 due to across-the-board budget cuts mandated by Governor Nathan Deal.
Later that month, the National Coalition for History and 19 stakeholder organizations sent a letter to the governor and secretary of state opposing the closure of the archives. In October, Governor Deal and Secretary of State Kemp announced they would restore funding to keep the facility open. Public pressure put on the governor by archivists, historians, and other stakeholders garnered a great deal of media coverage and clearly motivated Deal's commitment to keep the archives open. NCH played a critical role in coordinating the response from our membership organizations that included historians, archivists, political scientists, legal historians, and the preservation community.
Federal Government Openness, Transparency, and DeclassificationNCH has always been a leader in the fight for greater government openness and transparency, as well as pushing for expedited declassification of federal records to make them accessible to historians and researchers.
Throughout the Bush administration, NCH led efforts in Congress and the federal courts to overturn an onerous executive order (EO) that gave unprecedented authority to presidents, former presidents, and their heirs to restrict public access to presidential records. NCH worked with the Obama administration's transition team and President Obama issued a new executive order on his first day in office rescinding the Bush EO and restoring the less restrictive process that had existed under previous presidents.
NCH submitted testimony to the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), a presidential advisory committee, calling for greater participation of historians in the declassification process. Over the past few years, the PIDB has issued two major reports to the president recommending that the government prioritize declassification efforts to ensure a greater focus on historically significant records, especially presidential records, with greater involvement of historians and historical advisory panels in setting these priorities. The PIDB also recommended that each agency should have an in-house history staff to assist agency records officers and declassifiers in the prioritization of records.
NCH has also been involved in litigation in the federal courts pressing for declassification of federal records. In May 2012, the National Security Archive, an NCH member organization, sued the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act seeking to declassify the full "Official History of the Bay of Pigs Operation." The US District Court sided with the agency's efforts to keep the last volume of the report secret in perpetuity. The archive appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.
In August 2012, the National Coalition for History sent a letter to the appeals court arguing the precedential impact of the case would have devastating consequences on future access to records and materials for research, especially in the areas of national security, foreign relations, military history, and presidential history. NCH asserted federal agencies would rely on the district court's overly broad interpretation to deny similar FOIA requests in the future.In December 2012, the DC Appeals Court rejected the Central Intelligence Agency's position supporting limited appellate review and ruled that the case merited the court's full consideration.
Tom Blanton, the executive director of the National Security Archive, told the History Coalition, "Your letter definitely had an impact on the government, which claimed in its brief that including such a letter as an attachment, as our lawyers did, was unheard of."
Earlier this year, NCH filed an amicus brief in support of the National Security Archive's case. The case is still pending.
Over the past few years, NCH has participated in efforts-at the request of our member organization the Civil War Trust-to oppose encroachments on significant Civil War battlefields. In 2011, two high-profile preservation battles were decided in our favor.
In 2011, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board rejected a proposal to license a casino located one-half mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. In addition to a letter from NCH, the coalition assisted the Civil War Trust in identifying more than 275 Civil War historians who signed on to a letter to the gaming board in opposition to the casino.
Beginning in 2008, NCH was involved with the Civil War Trust to prevent Wal-Mart from building a superstore on land adjacent to the Wilderness Civil War Battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia. NCH provided the Civil War Trust with a list of more than 250 Civil War scholars who sent a letter to Wal-Mart opposing the building of the store. Due to legal action and continued opposition from the historical and preservation communities, Wal-Mart eventually abandoned its plans to build the facility.
Despite the common assumption that NCH only focuses on Capitol Hill, the coalition has shown that it can, and will continue to, play a vital role in advocating for historical interests in a variety of forums.
—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.