Senate Panel Holds National Archives Oversight Hearing

On May 14, 2008, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security held an oversight hearing on the programs of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Dr. Martin J. Sherwin, University Professor of History at George Mason University, and winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, represented the National Coalition for History at the hearing.

Two other NCH member organizations also testified at the hearing: Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, and Dr. James Henderson, former Maine state archivist representing the Society of American Archivists.

This was the first oversight hearing on the National Archives in well over a decade.

The first panel consisted of Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein, Ms. Linda Koontz, Director of Information Services at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and Paul Brachfield, Inspector General of the National Archives and Records Administration. (click on each panelists name to see their full testimony).

The question and answer period for the first panel was highlighted by a sharp exchange between Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Brachfield over the lack of responsiveness by NARA to alleged weaknesses in its programs identified by the IG’s office. The panel also spent the bulk of the Q&A period discussing the progress and deficiencies of NARA’s Electronic Records Archive (ERA).

Professor Weinstein told Subcommittee Chairman Thomas Carper (D-DE) that the long-delayed ERA system would come on-line in June and that he expected the system would be capable of accepting the Bush administration’s records at the time of the presidential transition on January 20, 2009.

Inspector General Brachfield stated that he had identified warning signs with the ERA contractor Lockheed-Martin some time ago and his alarms had not been heeded by senior management at NARA. Mr. Brachfield expressed concerns as to, “if or when ERA will be operational.” Ms. Koontz stated that the ERA faced challenges in both the long- and short-term. She expressed real concern that the system was still at risk and that ERA would not be ready to accept Bush administration’s records next January.

Joining Dr. Sherwin, Dr. Henderson and Mr. Blanton on the second panel was Dr. Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org. (click on each panelists name to see their full testimony).

In summarizing the Q&A period, a number of themes emerged. There was consensus among the panelists that NARA was, as Mr. Blanton put it, “drowning” under the challenges of declassification of millions of documents and the processing of presidential records. Dr. McDermott and Mr. Blanton were sharply critical of NARA’s reticence to aggressively oversee records management by federal agencies, to be a stronger advocate for more resources from the Administration and Congress, and NARA’s deference and timidity towards the White House regarding preserving presidential records.

There was complete consensus among the panelists of the need to reform the classification and declassification process to reduce the amount of material that is over-classified initially so as to reduce backlogs in the future.

Dr. Sherwin strongly urged the adoption of the “Presidential Records Reform Act, (H.R. 1255, S. 886),” legislation to overturn Executive Order 13233 which gives incumbent and former-presidents, their heirs and designees and former-vice presidents broader authority to withhold or delay the release of records.

Both Dr. Henderson and Dr. Sherwin spoke against the elimination of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) as called for in the Administration’s fiscal year 2009 budget. They urged Congress to provide the fully authorized amount of $10 million this year, plus $2 million for administrative costs. They also called for the passage of a bill to reauthorize the NHPRC for the next five fiscal years at $20 million per-year.

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