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From The Coalition Column of the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Historic Election's Impact on History

Lee White, December 2008

The election of Barack Obama is undoubtedly one of the most historic 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 presidential 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 web site 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 (www.americanprogressaction.org/issues/2008/pdf/presidential_records_act1.pdf).

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, the president is required to communicate the reasons for any such removal to each House of the Congress.

Bruce Cole, chair 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 impact on the membership, and seniority, of some committees.

One piece 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 John B. Larson (D-Conn.) as that body’s representative on the NHPRC. With the departure of Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) 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.

Appropriations

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-W.Va.) to step down from the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee due to his failing health. Senator Byrd has been history’s most stalwart advocate in Congress for many years, as exemplified, for example, 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-Hawaii) will be succeeding Senator Byrd.

There was no Democratic turnover on the Senate Appropriations Committee, so it is likely that Senator Richard Durbin (R-Ill.) will remain chair 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-Kans.) 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 Dianne 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-Colo.) 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-Kans.) will stay in his position.

Authorizing Committees

The biggest uncertainty for the historical community in the Senate is the fate of Senator Joseph Lieberman, who currently chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee has oversight responsibility for both the National Archives and the NHPRC.

As most readers know, although Senator Lieberman was re-elected in 2006 as an independent, he chose to caucus with the Democrats. Lieberman’s decision was critical in giving the Democrats the one vote margin (51–49) they needed to control the Senate.

However, Lieberman’s endorsement and active campaigning for Senator McCain this year led some Senate Democrats to demand his ouster from the caucus, or at a minimum, stripping him of his leadership of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

However, the situation is complicated. With Lieberman, the Democrats now control 57 seats. There are three seats that remain undecided. Were the Democrats to win all three that would give them the 60 votes they need to break any Republican filibusters. So, once again, Lieberman’s vote could be critical.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met with Lieberman for the proverbial “trip to the woodshed” last week. However, nothing was resolved during the meeting. If the Democrats, as appears likely, win only two of the three seats, Lieberman’s vote would lose some of its importance. And, in the end, while Reid can make a recommendation, it is ultimately up to his colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus to make the final decision on Lieberman’s fate.

It should be noted that over the past two years, Senator Lieberman has tirelessly pushed for passage of the legislation to revoke President Bush’s executive order limiting access to presidential records. However, as noted above, president-elect Obama will almost certainly revoke Executive Order 13233.

Following Lieberman on the seniority list on the Senate HS&GA Committee are Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). They currently chair the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees respectively. Levin will most certainly not leave his post, but it is unclear what Senator Akaka’s intentions are.

If they both stay in their current positions, then Senator Thomas Carper (D-Del.) will assume the chairmanship. Senator Carper has shown a keen interest in the National Archives and convened the first oversight hearing for the agency in recent memory earlier this year. In addition, the Senator also tried late this year to provide a short-term reauthorization for the NHPRC. Senator Susan Collins (R-Me.), the current ranking member was re-elected this year.

On the House side, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has announced he will challenge Representative John Dingell for the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Waxman is perhaps the most outspoken champion for government transparency in Congress, so he will leave a huge void should he move to Energy and Commerce.

Representative Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) is next in line in seniority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

On the Republican side, the current Ranking Member, Tom Davis (R-Va.) has retired, leaving former committee chair Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and John McHugh (R-N.Y.) next in line to succeed him.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.