The Year in Review

Lee White, January 2008

December 1, 2007, marked my first anniversary as executive director of the National Coalition for History (NCH). It is hard to believe that 12 months have passed since my predecessor Bruce Craig spent a month prepping me for what has been the most rewarding year of my professional career.

NCH has accomplished much in the past year. Perhaps the most noticeable change was our redesigned web site (www.historycoalition.org) that debuted last April. Thanks to the generosity of the History Channel, we were able to create a state-of-the-art internet presence. As a result of the blogging ability the site offers, many times this year I was able to post agency funding levels from a House or Senate appropriations subcommittee markup within an hour of the end of the hearing.

It was with some initial trepidation that I made the decision to change the format and length of NCH's flagship weekly, Washington Update. However, I've received a great deal of positive feedback about allowing readers the choice of a shorter news summary or full-length articles. And subscribers to our new RSS feed have risen steadily.

It has been a very busy year on Capitol Hill and with the federal agencies of interest to the historical community. Here is a recapitulation (and update) of some of the major stories of 2007.

For the first time in over a decade, the Democrats had full control of Congress and with it came the ability to use congressional committees to impose meaningful oversight on the Bush administration. Unfortunately, partisan bickering reached new heights between both parties, resulting in inevitable gridlock. As 2007 draws to a close the inter-party squabbling generated by the presidential campaigns has only made things more complicated.

Presidential Records

Perhaps no issue affecting the historical and archival communities benefited from the ascendancy of the Democrats to power than the now six-year battle that the historical and archival communities have waged to overturn the Bush administration's Executive Order (EO) 13233. Under the Presidential Records Act, presidential records have to be released to historians and the public 12 years after the end of a presidential administration. In November 2001, President George W. Bush issued EO 13233 giving current and former presidents, their heirs or designees, and former vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely.

Less than a month after EO 13233 was issued, a lawsuit was brought by Public Citizen on behalf of itself, the American Historical Association, the National Security Archive, the Organization of American Historians, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Political Science Association, and historian Stanley Kutler against the federal government questioning the order's legality.

After years of filings and counter-filings, on October 1, 2007, a federal district court judge gave historians and researchers a partial, but significant victory in the suit. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly struck down the section of the EO that allows a former president to indefinitely delay the release of records. However, the judge did not rule on the constitutionality of the executive order itself, narrowly crafting her decision to address only specific provisions in the order. She also did not rule on the legality of the sections of the executive order allowing heirs and designees of former presidents, and former vice presidents, the authority to control the release of documents, calling them “unripe” since no records have yet been withheld pursuant to those provisions. However, the judge left open the right for the plaintiffs to challenge these provisions in the future.

In late November, the administration chose not to appeal the decision.

On Capitol Hill, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and the National Archives held a hearing (on March 1, 2007) to consider presidential records; specifically the impact EO 13233 has had on the disposition of those materials.

Representatives of four NCH member organizations testified at the hearing: Steven L. Hensen, past president of the Society of American Archivists; Anna K. Nelson, representing the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations; Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive; and Robert Dallek, representing the American Historical Association. Also testifying was Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the lead counsel in the AHA's lawsuit in federal district court.

Subsequently, a bill (H.R. 1255) to overturn Executive Order 13233 overwhelmingly passed the House by a vote of 333-93. At the time the legislation was considered in the House, the Bush administration issued a threat to veto the bill, but it passed the House by a veto-proof margin.

Similar legislation cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee by voice vote this past summer. However, when the Democratic leadership sought to bring the bill to the floor on September 29, Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) objected to consideration of the bill.

Unfortunately, the Senate bill remains in limbo. However, a renewed push to pass the legislation before the current Congress adjourns will resume in 2008.

Missing White House E-Mails

In November, a federal district judge issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the White House from destroying back-up copies of millions of deleted e-mails while a lawsuit is pending to gain access to them. The judge also consolidated two separate suits filed by the National Security Archive and Citizens for Ethics in Washington against the Executive Office of the President, including the White House Office of Administration, and the National Archives and Records Administration.

The two groups are seeking the recovery and preservation of millions of e-mail messages that were apparently deleted from White House computers between March 2003 and October 2005. White House officials have acknowledged in press and congressional briefings that e-mails are missing from the White House archive. However, they have maintained that while some e-mails might not have been archived automatically, that they may still exist on backup tapes. It is worth noting that in 2002, the Bush administration had abandoned the electronic records management system put in place by the Clinton White House.

Earlier in the year, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee launched an investigation into whether White House officials violated the Presidential Records Act by using e-mail accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign for official White House business.

Federal Appropriations

As this goes to press in early December, the Congress and the White House remained deadlocked in their annual game of chicken over the passage of the federal budget. Although the federal fiscal year 2008 began on October 1, 2007, the government has been operating on a series of stopgap continuing resolutions that funds agencies at last year's spending levels. To date, only the defense appropriations bill has been enacted into law.

The current continuing resolution expires on December 14 and adding to the contentiousness over the budget is the related issue of providing additional funding for the war in Iraq. The president has remained adamant that discretionary spending in the 11 remaining appropriations bills should not exceed $933 billion. The Democrats originally came in at a level of $954 billion and have offered to split the difference with the White House in an effort to reach a compromise. The Democratic leadership in both houses will attempt to pass an omnibus spending bill that includes all 11 appropriations bills.

But the Democrats might have a problem with this strategy. They had used the Republicans' failure to pass budgets while they were in control of Congress as one of the rationales for electing a Democratic majority. So if the Democrats don't pass a budget, it will provide the Republicans with an election year issue.

The agencies of interest to the historical and archival communities all received modest increases in the initial appropriations bills that have passed the House, so it remains to be seen whether these gains will be lost in the consolidation process. Hopefully, we will have the final numbers for you in next month's column.

Smithsonian Institution

2007 was perhaps the most tumultuous year in the history of the Smithsonian Institution. On March 26, 2007, Roger W. Sant, chair of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents Executive Committee, announced that Secretary Lawrence M. Small had resigned. Thus ended the controversy-filled, seven-year reign of the 11th secretary of the institution.

Small was finally brought down by a series of articles published in March in the Washington Post exposing questionable expenses incurred by the Smithsonian secretary. Most damaging to Small was an allegation made to the Post by the former Smithsonian inspector general, Debra S. Ritt. She alleged that Small tried to steer her audit of Smithsonian financial dealings away from his own compensation, and the controversial Smithsonian Business Ventures operation, toward construction programs.

Cristián Samper, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, was named acting secretary while the regents conducted a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.
Later in the year, Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke and the chief executive officer of Smithsonian Business Ventures, Gary Beer, also resigned.

Beer was brought down by many of the same business practices that led to Small's departure, such as questionable expenses and charges of excessive compensation. However, most damaging perhaps was an article in the Washington Post that detailed allegations that Beer had a personal relationship with a subordinate who received five promotions and four raises over the last six years.

In the fall the Smithsonian television channel quietly made its debut on satellite provider DirecTV. Ironically, development of the channel was one of the contributing factors to the departures of Small and Beer. It generated a great deal of controversy when the Smithsonian Institution first announced its exclusive deal with the Showtime Networks, Inc., to develop a television network nearly two years ago.

The Smithsonian claimed that the fears that access to their holdings by filmmakers would be affected have proved unfounded. According to the Smithsonian, more than 210 requests to film at the institution came in from January 1, 2006, to August 3, 2007. Of these, only two were declined due to the creation of Smithsonian Networks, the institution stated.

Comings and Goings in 2007

On August 30, 2007, the National Park Service announced the long-awaited selection of Robert K. Sutton as chief historian of the National Park Service. Sutton has been superintendent of the Manassas National Battlefield Park since 1995. Sutton assumed his new position on October 1, 2007. The chief historian position had remained vacant for over two years since the retirement of Dwight Pitcaithley in June 2005.

At the National Archives and Records Administration, three senior officials announced their departure or retirement and one important vacancy was filled.

J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, who retired from the post at year's end, agreed to become senior counselor to Archivist Allen Weinstein beginning in January 2008.

On October 1, 2007, executive director Max J. Evans announced that he will be retiring from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission on January 31, 2008. Evans, who was appointed in January 2003, will be assuming a new position with the historical department at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. No timetable has been given for the naming of a replacement.

Terri Garner was named as the new director of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. From 2005 to the present, Garner served as executive director of the Bangor Museum and Center for History. Garner assumed her duties on November 5, 2007.

NCH Collaborative Efforts

Because of our small size, the National Coalition for History engages in collaborative efforts with other like-minded groups to achieve results on Capitol Hill and with federal agencies.

In April, the National Coalition for History, the American Historical Association and 18 other organizations wrote to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein to express concerns about the possible destruction of records relating to the cases of detainees being held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The organizations' letters asked the attorney general and the archivist to ensure that a complete set of the records is retained, as a set, in order to ensure an accurate historical and legal record.

Throughout 2007, NCH has been part of a coalition seeking passage of comprehensive reform of the Freedom of Information Act. While similar legislation has passed both the House and Senate, differences between the two bills still must be reconciled.

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