Senate Panel Considers Comprehensive NARA & NHPRC Reform Bill

On September 17, 2008, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee considered 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). While the committee approved a package of amendments to the bill, because of a lack of a quorum S. 3477 is not expected to be marked up until next week.

The substitute amendment adopted by the committee, if passed, would authorize the establishment of a new preservation grants program at the National Historical Publications and Records (NHPRC) for the papers of former presidents who do not have archival depositories in the Presidential Library System of the National Archives. The bill would also establish an Advisory Committee to oversee the completion of the various Founding Fathers papers projects. In addition, it would require the National Archives to create an annual capital budget for facilities within the Presidential Library system.

The bill had originally been expected to be a vehicle for reauthorizing the NHPRC whose current authorization expires after this fiscal year. But disagreements among the Senate panel’s members over funding levels led to the exclusion of any reauthorization provisions in the final bill.

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 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 a 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 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 the amendments to S. 3477 approved by the committee.

Creates “Grants for Presidential Centers of Historical Excellence”

  • 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.
  • Funds can only be used to promote historical preservation of, and public access to, the historical records of former presidents.
  • Funds cannot be used for maintenance, operating costs, and construction of any facility to house a former president’s records.
  • Application requirements– Successful applicants must: possess historical works and collections of historical sources that the NHPRC considers worthy of public expenditure; have appropriate facilities and space for preservation and public access to records; ensure free access to the public; have educational programs as part of their mission; have raised funds from non-Federal sources in an amount equal to the amount of the grant sought; coordinate with relevant Federal programs or entities; coordinate with relevant non-Federal entities; and present a workable plan for preservation and public access.

Term limits for NHPRC Members:

  • A member cannot be appointed for a term of more than 2 years and is limited to 4 terms. Term limits those currently serving on the NHPRC and those members appointed after enactment of the law.
  • Requires members to recuse themselves from voting on any matter that poses a conflict of interest or may benefit the entity they represent.

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.”
  • Gives the Archivist of the United States authority to transfer funds to pay for the on-line access to State and local governments, educational institutions, private non-profits and “other public entities.”
  • By December 31st of each year, the Archivist of the United States shall report to relevant congressional committees on provisions, amount and duration of each cooperative agreement.

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 will annually review the goals and report to the Archivist of the United States on each project’s progress in meeting the goals. The advisory committee can recommend to the Archivist of the United States measures to aid or encourage the Founding Fathers projects in meeting the goals.
  • Each Founding Fathers project shall provide the advisory committee with an annual report detailing progress in meeting the goals and identify and any additional resources needed. The report also must break down annual funding proportionately from Federal, State and local governments, the host institution, private or public foundations and individuals. The Founding Fathers projects must provide information on all activities carried out using nongovernmental funding.
  • The advisory committee shall be comprised of 3 “nationally recognized historians” appointed for no more than 2 consecutive 4-year terms.
  • The advisory committee must meet at least once a year and provide a report to the relevant congressional committees.
  • The advisory committee will terminate after 8 years.
  • The advisory committee should recommend legislative or executive action needed to facilitate completion of the performance goals for the Founding Fathers editorial projects.

Capital Improvement Plan for Presidential Archival Depositories

  • The Archivist of the United States shall provide as part of its annual budget submission to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, a ten-year capital improvement plan for the Presidential Library System.
  • The plan should include a prioritization of all capital projects exceeding $1 million, the current cost of each capital project and the basis on which each cost estimate was based.
  • The Archivist of the United States shall provide to the Appropriations Committees annual updates to the capital improvement plan that also includes an explanation for any changes in cost estimates.

Changes to Endowment Requirements for Presidential Libraries

  • Increases the endowment percentage requirement for the land, construction, and installing equipment from the current 40% to 60%.
  • Requires the Archivist of the United States to provide a report to the congressional authorizing committees with alternative plans to reduce the financial burden the Presidential Library System places on the Federal Government, improve the preservation of presidential records and reduce delays in public access to all presidential records.