Publication Date

May 1, 1995

Appropriations Hearings on the National Archives and National Historical Publications and Records Commission

On March 21 Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland and founder and director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, and I testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government, which has jurisdiction over the budgets of the National Archives and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The hearing offered public witnesses the opportunity to testify on the fiscal 1996 budgets of any of the federal programs under the subcommittee's jurisdiction.

I urged the committee to appropriate the $195.291 million that President Clinton requested for the National Archives and $6 million ($2 million above the president's request, but 33 percent less than the appropriation for this year) for the grants program of the NHPRC. I noted that at the same time that the National Archives is cutting its staff, it is taking on many new tasks. These include taking a major role in facilitating the implementation of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act; processing the records for the new Bush Presidential Library; servicing large numbers of recently declassified records; providing guidance to federal agencies on preserving electronic records; adjusting to the opening of the new research facility, Archives II, at College Park, Maryland, which doubled the research facilities of the National Archives; and planning for the additional records that will be sent to the National Archives as a result of agency downsizing. I stressed the disparity between reduced staff and added responsibilities and urged that there be no reductions from the president's request. Speaking from years of experience with NHPRC grants, Ira Berlin made an eloquent and passionate plea for additional funding. He noted that through a special program many documentary history volumes are in libraries around the world. "It has not been lost on the people of these nations," he said "that no other nation in the world has so openly made the record of its history available." Referring to grants for records preservation and description, he stressed that there is hardly an archival depository in the United States that has not benefited from the material and intellectual assistance of the NHPRC. Berlin also urged a $2 million increase in the NHPRC grants program for fiscal 1996. Chair Jim Lightfoot (R-Iowa) was gracious and expressed appreciation for our testimony. He asked no oral questions but did give us a list of standard questions that all witnesses received.

Sheldon Hackney Testifies at National Endowment for the Humanities Hearing

On March 21 the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, chaired by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), held a hearing to consider the fiscal 1996 budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Sheldon Hackney, chair of the NEH, was the only witness. It was a cordial hearing with no harsh questions. Four members of the subcommittee—Ralph Regula, Joe Skeen (R-N.Mex.), Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), and David Skaggs (D-Colo.)—were present. Hackney described the purpose of the NEH as helping to preserve our cultural heritage, promoting citizenship, and ensuring that the humanities belong to all Americans regardless of how much money they make or where they live. He called attention to the many prizewinning books that had resulted from NEH research grants and talked about the ways that the NEH has assisted in improving the quality of education in America. Yates used his time to read portions of Lynne Cheney's December 1991 letter of resignation as chair of the NEH. In this letter Cheney described her pride in being able to provide leadership to the NEH for six and a half years and recalled her various accomplishments—significantly increasing research and access funding, establishing a program for the preservation of brittle books, and encouraging good teaching. In her letter she also expressed praise for the wonderful NEH staff and for a fair and rigorous review process. On each point, Yates asked Hackney if these fine initiatives were being continued. There were also questions from the subcommittee members about whether the administrative offices of the NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) should be combined, about block grants, about what has happened to NEH funding in constant dollars in recent years, and about how the NEH can strike a balance between blandness and controversy in awarding grants. There were further questions about the expected outcomes of the conversations initiative and the percentage of the budget that goes to administration as opposed to grants to individuals. There was only one very brief reference to the problems associated with the National History Standards. The hearing ended on a very positive note in which Skeen asserted how much he appreciated the NEH. While its product, which is understanding, is not tangible, he noted that it would be a tragic day when we feel we have no responsibility for furthering understanding. He said that despite what some people may think, "it is not all politics around here;" and he expressed appreciation for Yates's tutelage over the years in enhancing his understanding of the humanities.

Educational Standards

On March 22, the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), held a hearing to consider educational standards. Witnesses included Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N. Mex.), Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers; Diane Ravitch, a former assistant education secretary in the Bush administration; James Burge, a vice president of Motorola Inc.; and Lynne Cheney. Although the issue of the history standards surfaced several times, particularly in Cheney's remarks, the hearing focused on the need for raising educational standards in the United States and on determining what the federal role in raising standards should be. Except for Cheney, who was concerned about the standards being politicized, the witnesses tended to support voluntary national standards. Bingaman pointed out that we do have various standards now but they are, generally speaking, inadequate and low standards. Bingaman was particularly interested in the National Education Goals Panel and in considering the role it should play in reviewing standards if the National Education Standards and Improvement Council is abolished. Shanker pointed out that the states are requesting help and that voluntary standards could be very useful. Burge stressed that only 10 percent of the people who apply for work at Motorola have the skills the company needs, stating, "Standards are a visible means, a tool for communicating information about what skills are needed in the private sector." The general consensus seemed to be that the hearing had resulted in a very useful exploration of the value of standards.

NCC Presents Testimony on Fiscal 1996 Budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities

On March 24 I testified on behalf of the 50 NCC organizations at a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, chaired by Ralph Regula. Over 60 witnesses presented five-minute statements in a basically pro forma hearing designed to give the public an opportunity to express their views on federal programs under the subcommittee's jurisdiction. Representative Regula was the only member of the subcommittee present, and the hearing resulted in what I considered a very useful dialogue on several key points.

I began by requesting funding for the NEH at the level of $182 million, which coincides with the president's request, and pointed out that the real value of the current funding request for fiscal 1996 when adjusted for inflation, would buy only 58 percent of what the NEH funding would buy in 1979. I acknowledged that we are well aware that it may be necessary to trim the amount requested by the administration, but I urged that the committee not single the NEH out for special cuts. Regula immediately raised the fact that the NEH had not yet been reauthorized. In response, I told him that a large coalition of concerned organizations and individuals had been contacting members of Congress, explaining the many valuable contributions that the NEH makes to advancing lifelong learning, to fostering citizenship, and to promoting basic research in the humanities and that we felt that we were making progress. At this point Regula said that the NEH would not be singled out for special cuts if it were reauthorized.

I then explored with him the problem that while we are encouraged about the prospects for reauthorization, we know that there will be no legislation passed prior to the markup and vote on the Interior appropriations bill. Nevertheless, I urged that money be included in the fiscal 1996 bill for the NEH. If money is not set aside for the NEH at this point, I explained, we fear that all funds could be allocated to other programs, thereby eliminating the possibility of funding even if the NEH is reauthorized later in the year. In response to this request, Regula said that I should be aware of the possibility that it could be taken out on a technical procedural point since it is not authorized and asked if I felt that was a risk worth taking. I responded that I felt it was.

Since I had attended all three of the hearings on NEH funding held by this subcommittee, I knew that Regula had heard a great deal about the many exemplary programs of the NEH. Thus I decided to use my limited time to address some of the issues that keep coming up at the hearings. First I raised the issue of whether the humanities programs have met the fiscal burden of proof in this time of fiscal austerity. I turned the question around to ask whether we can afford not to fund the NEH. With less than 70 cents per taxpayer a year, the NEH leverages significant contributions from the private sector. Additionally, the NEH supports an array of projects that stimulate cultural tourism. The Travel Industry Association of America found in a survey of Americans planning fall trips that over 49 percent planned to visit historical sites and 45 percent expected to attend cultural events. The travel industry is the nation's second largest employer, and the kinds of history projects that the NEH funds provide important seed money for the enhancement of cultural tourism. The fiscal impact of NEH funding is, however, often hard to measure. For instance, the role of the NEH in promoting citizenship that is grounded in an understanding of our history cannot be quantified, but is crucial to the very survival of the country.

A second issue I raised was whether the NEH could be privatized. The estimates for how much it would cost to set up a private fund capable of providing anything like the current level of funding are several billion dollars. I stated that in today's economic environment the possibility of creating a private fund of that size is very unrealistic. At this point Regula once again inserted a comment, expressing his agreement that plans for privatization seemed unrealistic.

My third issue was a concern about the funding of projects that are perceived by some as inappropriate for tax funded grants. I noted that during this subcommittee's hearing on January 24 Frank Hodsoll, former head of the NEA in the Reagan administration, acknowledged that there had been some mistakes, but he estimated the mistakes at about 1 percent, which he said was a much better performance rate than that of most corporations. Regula's comment at this point was that the real problem with inappropriate grants was with the NEA and not the NEH.

We then had a brief conversation about the possibility of shifting NEH funding to block grants to the states. I stressed that while the state humanities councils are efficient and effective managers of grant funds, they are not state government agencies. Thus there is a good possibility that they would not receive funds. But I noted that by far the two greatest concerns about shifting to block grants are first, that the national peer view system of the NEH that gives its seal of approval—that then is used to leverage private funds—would be lost. And second, the major national projects, many collaborative, that the NEH supports, such as the Civil War documentary film and the preservation of brittle books, could not be supported by a single state.

Representative Regula announced at this point that my allotted time had expired; however, he commented that I had not raised the issue of the NEH being elitist. I responded that I had been listening to his comments in the previous hearings and that I didn't think he thought the NEH was elitist. And then I asked him if it was an issue I needed to address. He replied that he, and not I, was supposed to be asking the questions. But he and the audience chuckled over the exchange as I turned the microphone over to the next witness.

The House Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies expects during the week of May 15 to decide on the fiscal 1996 budget of the NEH. Members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies are Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chair; Bob Livingston (R-La.); Joseph McDade (R-Pa.); Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.); Joe Skeen (R-N.Mex.); Barbara Vucanovich (R-Nev.); Charles Taylor (R-N.C.); George Nethercutt (R-Wash.); Jim Bunn (R-Ore.); Sidney Yates (D-Ill.); David Obey (D-Wis.); Norma Dicks (D-Wash.); Tom Bevill (D-Ala.); and David Skaggs (D-Colo.).

— is the director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.

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