Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act of 2008

In September, Congress passed and the president signed into law (Public Law 110-404), legislation (S. 3477) to make changes in major program areas at the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The law creates a new program called “Grants for Presidential Centers of Historical Excellence.” Under the initiative, the Archivist of the United States, with advice of NHPRC, may make competitive grants to non-profit entities or State or local governments to promote the historical preservation of, and public access to, historical records and documents related to any former president who does not have an archival depository administered by NARA under the Presidential Libraries Act.

The National Coalition for History (NCH) sent a letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) strongly objecting to the passage of the “Presidential Historical Records Act,” section of the bill.

This section of the bill is the latest iteration of legislation (H.R. 1664, S. 1878) introduced earlier in this Congress. That legislation would have authorized the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to make pass-through grants towards the establishment of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia.

While the Bush administration took no formal position on H.R. 1664 when it was considered in the House, the National Coalition for History opposed that bill on the grounds that the National Archives should not be used as a pass-through for federal funds to a private entity. Private institutions usually receive funds through specific earmarks in appropriations bills, not through separate legislation.

The National Coalition for History opposed the “Presidential Historical Records Act” because the new grants initiative would put further strain on the already severely limited financial and human resources that the NHPRC has at its disposal.

In addition, the legislation duplicates existing law. The NHPRC’s current authorizing statute already allows it to make grants for the presidential documents projects that the legislation purports to fund. NCH argued that there was no demonstrated policy rationale to carve out a new special grants program for this specific subset of documentary projects. A project to preserve a former president’s papers should compete on a level playing field with all other projects seeking NHPRC funding. At committee markup, the bill was improved to give the Archivist of the United States greater discretion in the establishment of the program.

Here is a summary of S. 3477 as enacted into law (Public Law 110-404):

Creates “Grants for Presidential Centers of Historical Excellence”

  • The Archivist of the United States, with advice of NHPRC, may make competitive grants to non-profits, or a State or local government to entities to promote the historical preservation of, and public access to, historical records and documents to any former president who does not have a Presidential archival depository administered by NARA under the Presidential Libraries Act.
  • Funds can only be used to promote historical preservation of, and public access to historical record of former president.
  • Funds cannot be used for maintenance, operating costs, and construction of any facility to house former president’s record.
  • Application requirements: applicant must possess historical works and collections of historical sources that Commission considers worthy of public expenditure; applicant must have appropriate facilities and space for preservation and public access to records; ensure free access to the public; have educational programs as part of mission; raised funds from non-Federal sources in amount equal to the amount of the grant sought; coordinate with relevant Federal programs or entities; coordinate with relevant non-Federal entities; and workable plan for preservation and public access.

Term limits for NHPRC Members

An NHPRC member cannot be appointed for a term of more than 2 years and is limited to 4 terms. The bill requires members to recuse themselves from voting on any matter that poses a conflict of interest or may benefit the entity they represent. The term limits would apply to members currently serving on, and all future members of, the NHPRC.

Online Access of Founding Fathers Documents

The Archivist of the United States may enter into cooperative agreements to provide on-line access to the published papers of Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Madison and “other prominent historical figures as determined appropriate by the Archivist of the United States.”

Advisory Committee on Founding Fathers Editorial Projects

The Archivist of the United States may appoint an advisory committee to review the progress of the Founding Fathers projects funded by the NHPRC. The advisory committee may also, in consultation with the Founding Fathers projects, set appropriate completion goals. The advisory committee shall be comprised of 3 “nationally recognized historians” appointed for no more than 2 consecutive 4-year terms.

Capital Improvement Plan for Presidential Archival Depositories

The bill requires NARA to provide, as part of its budget submission to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, a ten-year capital improvement plan for the Presidential Library System and to update it annually.

Changes to Endowment Requirements for Presidential Libraries

The bill increases the endowment percentage requirement for the land, construction, and installing equipment from the current 40% to 60%.

National Database for Records of Servitude, Emancipation and Post-Civil War Reconstruction

The legislation allows the National Archives to create an electronically searchable database of historic records of servitude, emancipation, and post-Civil War reconstruction contained within federal agencies for genealogical and historical research and to assist in the preservation of these records.

The bill gives the NHPRC the authority to provide grants to states, colleges and universities, and genealogical associations to preserve records and establish databases of local records of such information.