Historic 2008 Election Brings Uncertainty for History (revised 11/21/08)

The election of Barack Obama is undoubtedly one of the most historical moments of our time. Vitally important to the historical community is the president-elect’s commitment to nullify President Bush’s Executive Order 13233, which made it more difficult to gain access to records after a president leaves office. President-elect Obama was a co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate to overturn the executive order. Senator Obama’s campaign website cites the revocation of the executive order as a priority for his new administration’s government transparency agenda.

John Podesta, the head of the Obama transition team, has already stated that one of the first acts the president-elect will engage in is to review, and where appropriate, reverse executive orders from the Bush administration. The AHA, the Organization of American Historians, the National Coalition for History, and a number of prominent historians signed on to a letter sent earlier this fall by the Center for American Progress, the think tank that Podesta heads, urging Congress to strengthen the Presidential Records Act.

Although the new president will be appointing the members of his cabinet, the leadership of the National Archives and Records Administration will remain unchanged. Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein’s term neither expires nor is subject to resignation upon the end of a President’s term of office. The Archivist may be removed from office by the President. However, he President is required to communicate the reasons for any such removal to each House of the Congress.

Dr. Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities has announced he will be leaving his post in January 2009. Cole’s term was set to expire in December 2009. Since the post requires Senate confirmation, President Obama will be selecting his successor.


While there is clarity concerning the impact of the election on the executive branch on the historical community, there remain a host of uncertainties on Capitol Hill. The outcome of the three remaining undecided Senate races will have significant impacts on the membership, and seniority, of some committees.

Before consideration of the impact of the election on the membership of congressional committees, one item of good news is the ascension of a true friend of the historical community to a senior leadership position in the House. Earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Congressman John B. Larson (D-CT) as that body’s representative on the NHPRC. With the departure of Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) to become President-elect Obama’s chief of staff, Larson will very likely move up to Chair the Democratic Caucus making him the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. Among his other positions before entering Congress, Larson was a high school history teacher.


Perhaps the biggest impact on the Hill for historians did not directly result from the election, but was the decision of Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) to step down from the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee due to his failing health. Senator Byrd has been history’s most stalwart advocate in Congress for many years exemplified by his sponsorship of the Teaching American History grants program at the U.S. Department of Education. Despite numerous attempts by the Bush administration to drastically cut funding for the program, Senator Byrd has always ensured that the Teaching American History grants program received a constant and robust level of funding. Although his role may be diminished, Senator Byrd’s influence will still be felt. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) will be succeeding Senator Byrd.

There was no Democratic turnover on the Senate Appropriations Committee, so it is likely that Senator Richard Durbin (R-IL) will remain chairman of the Financial Services and General Government (FS&GG) subcommittee that provides funding for the National Archives and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). There was a great deal of turnover on the Republican side, so it is unclear whether Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) will remain as the Ranking Member on the subcommittee.

Likewise in the House, Representative Jose Serrano will likely retain his chairmanship of the FS&GG appropriations Subcommittee, although there will be a new Ranking Member to replace Republican Representative Ralph Regula who retired this year.

Senator Diane Feinstein will probably retain the chairmanship of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee that funds the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution. The current ranking member, Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) retired, so it is unclear at this time who will take his place.

In the House, Congressman Norm Dicks will likely remain as chair of the Interior appropriations subcommittee although it is uncertain whether ranking member Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) will stay in his position.

Authorizing Committees

Over the past week, the leadership of two congressional committees with oversight over the National Archives and Records Administration and National Historical Publications and Records Commission was settled. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (ID-CT) will retain his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee after efforts to oust him from the job because of his outspoken support of John McCain for president failed. In the House, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) won his battle to take the helm of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Chairman Waxman was perhaps the most vocal advocate of openness and transparency in the House and his leadership will be missed. Representative Waxman introduced the bill (H.R. 1255) to revoke President Bush’s Executive Order 13233, which has made it more difficult to gain access to presidential records. Chairman Waxman then shepherded the bill through the House with a veto-proof margin. Waxman also took the lead on investigating millions of e-mails missing from the White House computer system and pushed legislation through the House to strengthen the preservation of federal and presidential records. Waxman was also a leader in efforts to prevent the overclassification, and to speed declassification, of federal and presidential records.

No clear successor has emerged to Waxman especially since seniority is no longer the guarantee that it once was that the member next in line will ascend to the chair. Representative Edolphus Towns (D-NY) is next in seniority. However, it is not yet clear whether Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) will challenge Towns.

Although he was re-elected as an independent in 2006, Senator Lieberman has caucused with the Democrats and gave the party the razor thin 51-49 majority it needed to control the Senate in this Congress. However, his well-publicized support of Senator McCain and his criticism of president-elect Obama during the campaign caused a great deal of consternation among many Democrats. Once it became clear that the Democrats had enough new seats to ensure their majority, there was a great hue and cry for him to be stripped of his committee chair and perhaps throw him out of the Democratic Caucus.

In the end, a request from President-elect Obama that Lieberman be spared made the difference. By a vote of 42-13, the Democratic Caucus voted not to strip Lieberman of his chair.

During this Congress, Senator Lieberman was a stalwart supporter of legislation (H.R. 1255, S. 886) to revoke the Bush executive order on presidential records. Senator Lieberman pushed the bill through his committee and worked tirelessly behind the scenes negotiating with the Republicans to lift their hold and to allow the legislation to come to the floor for a vote. Lieberman will play a key role in the future of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission whose programs need to be reauthorized in 2009.

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