Making the Case in Challenging Times: Struggling against the Current to Preserve History Programs
As Congress returned to town this week, it was greeted by a new Washington Post poll showing that 84 percent of the American public disapproves of the job it is doing, with only 13 percent approving. Almost two-thirds “strongly disapprove” of Congress’s performance. This is a precipitous drop from approval rating of around 30 percent just a year ago.
Nonetheless Congress goes back to work seemingly oblivious to the public opinion. With this being presidential election year, partisan brinkmanship has already begun with deadlines looming once again over raising the debt ceiling, and renewal of payroll tax cuts. And the annual budget battle will begin anew when President Obama sends his proposed fiscal 2013 budget to Congress in early-February. With the Republicans controlling the House of Representatives and the Democratic majority in the Senate, gridlock will no doubt continue.
In years past, the National Coalition for History (NCH) focused mainly on advocating for increased funding for federal programs. However, during the fiscal 2012 congressional budget process, NCH’s advocacy efforts were necessarily focused on preventing severe cuts or elimination of programs. It was a paradigm shift (although a subtle one)—to go from making a case for why a successful program needs more funding to why it simply needs to survive. Historical, archival and humanities programs are unfortunately perceived by some in Congress as luxury items in hard economic times. The difficulty in quantifying the direct economic benefits of these programs is always challenging.
There are those in the “Tea Party” wing of the House Republicans who treat the views of our Founding Fathers as gospel on the one hand, yet support legislation to eliminate the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and to gut its budget on the other. Ironically, one of the NHPRC’s current major initiatives is digitizing and making the Founding Fathers papers available for free online so that anyone, especially students, can access and study the primary documents on which our nation was founded. This is a prime example of the impact of this slash-and-burn budget cutting mentality.
Before adjourning in December 2011, the 112th Congress passed an omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2012 (which runs until September 30, 2012). The bill encompassed nine of the twelve annual appropriations bills and all of the programs of interest to the historical and archival communities. Below is a summary of how some of the major programs fared in 2011.
The cuts or level funding for programs of concern to NCH’s constituencies must be viewed in the context. Some solace should be taken in the fact that, with the exception of Teaching American History Grants, the federal agencies and programs for which we advocate in most cases sustained cuts that were far less onerous than expected. NCH and its constituent organizations were actively involved in advocacy efforts and mobilized their respective members to contact Congress on numerous occasions. Staff members at federal agencies have credited these efforts with preventing deeper cuts or elimination of programs. Thus, although the Teaching American History Grants program at the U.S. Department of Education has been terminated, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) was saved from elimination.
The Teaching American History (TAH) program had become a target with the passing of the program’s “father,” the late Senator Robert C. Byrd in June 2010. Senator Byrd’s position as a senior member and chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee always ensured that the TAH program was protected and that it received an annual appropriation of approximately $119 million. Although the program had many supporters in both the House and Senate, no Member of Congress stepped forward to champion the program after Senator Byrd’s passing.
Although funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities was cut by $9 million, the $146 million it received was actually the level requested by the Obama administration. Historic preservation programs at the National Park Service received a small increase and museum programs at the Institute of Museum and Library Services were cut by only $500,000.
At the request of the American Historical Association, the Coalition became involved in advocacy efforts to preserve funding for the U.S. Department of Education’s International Education and Foreign Language Studies (IEFLS) programs, including HEA-Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs, which form the vital infrastructure of the federal government’s investment in the international service pipeline. The Fulbright-Hays programs are of particular importance to historians because of the resources they provide for research and education relating to foreign languages and cultures.
Although these international education programs sustained major cuts in fiscal 2011, the NCH was involved in a successful effort to preserve level funding for these programs in fiscal 2012, with the exception of the Institute for International Public Policy whose funding was eliminated.
National Historical Publications and Records Commission
The National Historical Publications and Records Commission will receive $5 million under the 2012 omnibus appropriations bill. The House Appropriations Committee had proposed cutting funding for the NHPRC to $1 million. The National Coalition for History, the Association for Documentary Editing, the Society of American Archivists, and the Council of State Archivists lobbied hard for the adoption of the $5 million figure. Despite the $2 million cut from fiscal 2011, securing $5 million for the commission’s work can be considered a victory.
Federal Funding of K-12 History Education
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) was last authorized in 2001 during the Bush administration under the rubric of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NCLB’s authorization expired in 2008. In 2011, efforts to pass an ESEA reform bill moved forward in both the House and Senate. However, there were serious ideological differences between the two approaches and it seems unlikely that a bipartisan solution will be reached to pass a bill in 2012.
On October 20, 2011, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) completed its markup of the reauthorization of the ESEA. The bill includes an amendment, offered by Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.), which would create a “well-rounded” education fund. School districts could use the money to fund programs in history, civics education, social studies and eight other subject areas. This is similar to what the White House proposed in 2010 in “A Blueprint for Reform,” the administration’s plan for reauthorizing the ESEA.
While this is by no means an ideal solution, given the current emphasis on deficit reduction and the drive to push decisions on education spending to the localities, it does ensure that federal funds will still be available for history education and professional development, albeit at a much lower level. We will continue to advocate for restoration of the TAH grants program in a final ESEA bill. But with neither Congress nor the White House willing to keep TAH on the table, we alternatively need to exert effective pressure in favor of the Harkin/Enzi ESEA bill that is actually in play, which includes the “well-rounded” education language. Chairman Harkin has stated that he intends to bring the ESEA bill to the Senate floor in 2012.
There is no comparable, comprehensive ESEA reauthorization bill in the House. Instead a number of piecemeal bills addressing specific sections of the ESEA have been introduced. In May 2011, the House Education and Workforce Committee passed H.R. 1891, the “Setting New Priorities in Education Act,” which would eliminate 43 programs at the Department of Education including TAH grants.
Throughout 2011, the National Coalition for History worked closely with history, educational and civics organizations in seeking to preserve TAH as an independent program. We also worked to ensure that history received a dedicated level of funding in any “well-rounded” education program that might be developed as an alternative to TAH.
As Congress returns to work in 2012, the need for historians to make their case is more important than perhaps at any time since the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (the predecessor to the National Coalition for History) was founded in the early 1980s. You as individuals, and the institutions, organizations or companies you work for, are constituents and do not have to sit idly by and watch as federal programs that affect your livelihood have their budgets eliminated or slashed. While NCH serves as your voice in Washington, always remember that Members of Congress first and foremost listen to the folks back home.
I urge you to go to the NCH website (www.historycoalition.org) and subscribe to the Coalition’s newsletter. It will keep you abreast of what is happening in Washington, as well as alert you when you need to contact your congressional representatives at vital times during the upcoming legislative year.
Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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