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

Congress Finally Passes Fiscal 2008 Budget

Lee White, February 2008

One of the most frustrating things about being involved in advocating before Congress on behalf of history, or funding for any federal program, is the annual demolition derby that is the congressional budget process. It doesn't seem to matter if Congress and the presidency are held by different, or the same, parties, since the result is almost always the same. It ends up being more of a rough draft that results from closed-door negotiations by appropriators, often passed in the middle of the night right before Congress leaves for an extended holiday recess. In addition, as with this year, usually a host of appropriations bills are lumped together in a huge omnibus bill making even less likely that individual members of Congress can affect the outcome.

If you need any more evidence of how dysfunctional the federal appropriations process is, consider these facts. In 27 of the past 32 years (fiscal 1977–fiscal 2008), Congress and the president did not complete action on a majority of the regular appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year. In eight of those years, they did not finish any of the bills by the deadline. Congress and the president completed action on all the bills on schedule only four times—in fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995, and 1997. The last time before that, according to the Senate's resident historian, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), was back in 1948!

For fiscal 2007, which should have begun on October 1, 2006, Democrats threw in the towel soon after taking over the majority in January 2007, and passed a continuing resolution in February. The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate appropriation committees—Representative David Obey (D-Wisc.) and Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) decided not to attempt to cope with the budget crisis left by the outgoing Republican-controlled Congress. Instead, they extended the fiscal 2006 levels of federal agency funding until the beginning of fiscal 2008 on October 1, 2007.

The practical result was a significant across-the-board cut since no new funds were provided to cover the standard agency administrative costs that escalate each year such as mandatory cost of living increases for personnel and other overhead costs.

When President Bush's proposed fiscal 2008 budget was submitted to Congress in February 2007, the prospects looked just as grim for historical and archival-related programs in the federal government. For example, the president once again proposed eliminating the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and proposed cutting the Teaching American History grants program at the Department of Education from $120 million to $50 million.

However, impassioned lobbying by the historical and archival communities over the past few months eventually paid off with generally across-the-board increases in federal programs related to our interests. This accomplishment is even more amazing given the fact that domestic programs in general did not fare that well because of the continuing emphasis on defense and homeland security-related funding.

On December 26, 2007, President Bush signed into law an omnibus funding package (H.R. 2764) that incorporates the 11 fiscal 2008 appropriations bills for non-Defense Department agencies. The overall total for the bill is $555 billion. Congress passed the bill on December 19, 2007.

Here is a summary of fiscal 2008 funding for agencies and programs of interest to the historical and archival communities. For enabling comparison, the fiscal 2007 budget numbers are shown in parentheses after this year's amount and the report language from the House and Senate Appropriations Committees is provided where appropriate.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Total budget: $411 million ($341 million)

Note: this total amount includes funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

  • Operating Expenses: $315 million ($279 million)

This amount is $2.1 million more than the administration's request. The archivist was directed to target the amount above the request first to restore the public research hours that were cut in October 2006, and then to hire more archivist staff. The archives intends to allocate $1.3 million to restore the research hours and $800,000 to replace archival staff that has left in recent years. NARA was directed to report to the Committees on Appropriations, within 30 days of enactment, on specific steps it is taking to restore the research hours and to bolster its archivist workforce.

  • Electronic Records Archives project: $58 million ($45 million)

The Appropriations Committees expressed concern about cost overruns in the ERA program, NARA's oversight of the program, and the reliability of the work of the contractor (Lockheed Martin Corporation). The committees stated that additional delays "are unacceptable." The archivist was directed to make monthly progress reports to the Government Accountability Office and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

  • Repairs and Restoration: $28 million ($9 million)
    • Repairs and restoration of NARA facilities: $8.6 million
    • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library: $8 million
    • Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library: $750,000
    • Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library: $7.4 million
    • Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library: $3.7 million

National Historical Publications and Records Commission

Since the Bush administration had proposed eliminating the NHPRC in fiscal 2008, this increased funding represents a major victory for the advocacy efforts of the historical and archival communities.

Total Budget: $9.5 million ($7.5 million)

  • Grants: $7.5 million ($5.5 million)
  • Operating Expenses: $2 million (same as fiscal '07)

The Appropriations Committees expressed concern about the length of time it was taking to complete the publication of the Founding Fathers historical papers. They instructed the archivist to "accelerate the process" for completion of the projects and to develop a plan to make the papers available on-line. The archivist was given 90 days to report back to the committees.

Teaching American History (TAH) Grants

TAH Program total: $120 million ($119.7 million)

Since the Administration had proposed cutting this program to $50 million, this is a significant victory for the historical community. The Appropriations Committees recommended that the Department of Education provide initial three-year grants, with two additional years if a grantee is performing effectively.

National Park Service (NPS)

The committees provided $25 million in funding for the new Centennial Challenge program. This amount was half of what the administration had proposed. The Centennial Challenge is a 10-year initiative to generate $2 billion in public and private matching grants to prepare for the Park Service's Centennial celebration in 2016.

  • Cultural Programs: $21.7 million ($22.6 million)
  • Preserve America program: $7.5 million ($4.9 million)
  • Heritage Partnerships program: $15.5 million ($13.3 million)
  • Historic Preservation Fund: $71.5 million ($65.6 million). The Fund includes $40 million ($37 million) for State Historic Preservation Offices and $25 million ($8 million) for the Save America's Treasures Program.

National Endowment for the Humanities

Total budget: $147 million ($141 million)

  • Grants and Administration: $132.5 million ($125.8 million). Programs under this budget line include:

    • Federal and State Partnerships: $32.2 million ($30 million);
    • Preservation and Access: $18.6 million ($18.3 million);
    • Public Programs: $12.9 million ($12.3 million);
    • Research Programs: $13.2 million ($12.6 million);
    • Education Programs: $12.8 million, ($12.2 million);
    • Program Development: $362K ($375K);
    • "We the People" Initiative Grants: $15.2 million (no change);
    • Digital Humanities Initiative: $2 million (new funding);
    • Matching grants: $14.5 million ($15.2 million)

Smithsonian Institution

  • Total: $693 million ($634.9 million)
  • Salaries and Expenses: $571 million ($536 million)
  • Facilities Capital: $107 million ($98.6 million)
  • The bill also includes $15 million to establish a "Legacy Fund."

The Legacy Fund is intended to provide a means to address the $2.5 billion backlog of major repair and restoration of the institution's facilities that now exist. The Legacy Fund has been designed as a public-private partnership whereby each federal dollar provided must be matched by twice that amount in private contributions before the full $15 million is made available. Assuming that the Smithsonian can raise the $30 million, the Legacy Fund would provide $45 million above the amount already included in the Facilities Capital account that is allocated $107 million in fiscal 2008.

Despite the rocky year the Smithsonian experienced in 2007, Congress reaffirmed its commitment by providing major budget increases for the Institution. The large increase approved for the Smithsonian reflects the increased confidence the appropriations committees felt they had seen in the institution after a period of great controversy. The committees felt that the Smithsonian Institution had moved aggressively to address long-standing governance and integrity issues. The senior leadership of the institution had changed and the regents reorganized themselves to ensure that the reform process begun after the departure of the previous secretary was fully implemented. The appropriations committees believe that this reform effort will take many years, but the change in leadership and the reform efforts undertaken over the last eight months represent significant progress. The committees indicated that they would carefully monitor this continuing reform process to ensure that the Smithsonian does not backslide on its reforms.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.