Publication Date

January 1, 2007



A New Congress and New Possibilities for History and Archives

For the first time in a dozen years, Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives by a substantial margin—at least 15 seats—and they also took control of the Senate by two seats. Hill insiders expect that Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman Speaker of the House in history, will find it challenging to maintain a cordial working relationship with moderate House Republicans. She will need to, in order to get anything done. In the more genteel Senate, the change in leadership is expected to have less of an effect. Nevertheless, the dramatic shift in the congressional political landscape will affect history and archives substantially.

There were some casualties in the recent elections, including several long-term friends of the history and archive communities who went down in defeat. Most notable is Jim Leach (R-Iowa) who was a prime mover and supporter of the House Humanities Caucus. Leach was a strong and vocal Republican voice for the humanities and also a staunch advocate for funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). In the Senate, Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) who has been one of the prime movers of the Presidential Sites Improvement Act (S. 431)—legislation that seeks to provide up to $5 million a year in federal cost-share funds to support presidential sites—also was more often than not on the right side of the issues of concern to historians and archivists.

Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) won 64 percent of the vote against his Republican challenger, who pulled about 34 percent of the vote. While the victory is by a smaller margin than Byrd’s last election win six years ago when he captured 78 percent of the West Virginia vote, he returns to the Senate as the institution’s senior senator—the longest lived member of that body. Byrd is poised to once again regain the chair of the Appropriations Committee. That’s particularly good news for history programs like the "Teaching American History" initiative.

Some prognostications: Hill insiders expect some shake-ups in how both House and Senate committee structure. In the House, the senior Democrat on the House Committee of Education, George Miller, should he become chair, would be a forceful advocate for federal grants for students and for education reform in general. Good news in the education realm in the Senate as well—Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) will probably become chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. However, Kennedy’s positions regarding the two issues of prime concern to history educators—the reauthorizations of the No Child Left Behind Act and the Higher Education Act—are still unclear.

Assuming that Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) becomes the chair of the Government House Reform Committee (as is expected) there will be—in the words of Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and author of the online publication, Secrecy News—”a new day in Washington.” Chris Shays (R-Conn.) the present chair of the Government Reform subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, narrowly managed to hold onto his House seat. Shays has been a national leader in confronting the problem of overclassification of government records and has earned the respect of Representative Waxman and others who are concerned with these issues. During the last Congress, he conducted three hearings on secrecy in government and has probably done more useful work on this issue than any other member of Congress.

The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Act

On September 28, 2006, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 4846) "to authorize grants for contributions toward the establishment of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library" introduced by Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and cosponsored by 11 of his colleagues.

The bill in essence authorizes a future congressional appropriation that directs the Archivist of the United States to make a grant to contribute funds toward the establishment of a private presidential museum, the Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia, which is owned by the Wilson Library Foundation. Specifically, the legislation requires nonfederal matching funds at least double that of the grant, and stipulates that no grant funds can be used for the maintenance or operation of the library. In other words, while federal funds would be contributed, the library would not be made a part of the NARA-administered, presidential library system. The legislation creates a precedent for what some would perhaps like to see, a new NARA-administered program of pass-through grants for private presidential libraries and museums.

However, in the floor debate prior to enactment of the bill, Representative Danny Davis (D-Ill.), a member of the government reform committee that considered the measure stated, "I want to make it clear that we are not establishing a precedent here . . . the Federal government simply does not have the resources to support all private presidential libraries." True; yet, by enacting this legislation that is exactly what Congress is doing. Davis also stated, "I have been concerned that this grant would cut into the operating funds of the [National] Archives," a concern shared by other members of the committee. The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration and possible action.


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