From The Coalition Column of the May 2006 Perspectives
News Briefs, May 2006
Bruce Craig, May 2006
On March 8, 2006, by a vote of 409 to 12, the U.S. House of Representatives granted approval to the secretary of the interior to designate President Bill Clinton's birthplace in Hope, Arkansas, as a National Historic Site, thus making it a unit of the National Park System. The legislation (H.R. 4192) was introduced by Representative Mike Ross (D-Ark.) with other members of the Arkansas congressional delegation on November 1 of last year. On November 16 the House Committee on Resources met and favorably reported the measure (H. Rept. 109-133) to the House by unanimous consent.
The legislation provides that the Hope residence located at 117 South Hervey Street will be established as a unit of the National Park Service and given the name the "President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site" after the Clinton Birthplace Foundation donates the house and related property to the federal government. Figures provided by the National Park Service and the Congressional Budget Office estimate the costs of preparing and operating the site would be about $1 million a year.
National Park Service (NPS) insiders report that there was no contextual study to assess and compare the "suitability, feasibility, and historical significance" of this site with others associated with President Clinton. The NPS was not requested by the committee to comment on the proposal. NPS policy discourages designations of birthplaces as NPS units and instead favors designations of other sites more closely associated with a president's historical significance. Congressional supporters of the Clinton site maintain that "while there are numerous residences associated with Clinton, this property is the one most closely identified with his youth and early development." The designation also has the support of President Clinton.
After several days of active debate, on March 30, 2006, the House of Representatives concluded over three years of work and approved its version of the College Access and Opportunity Act (H.R. 609), legislation that serves as the House vehicle for a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA).
The HEA reauthorization was approved by the House by a largely partisan vote of 221 to 199. In order to get the bill passed, lawmakers removed a controversial provision in the original bill that would have altered the formula the government uses to distribute funds to college and university student aid programs (for example, the Federal Work-Study and the Perkins Loan programs). Lawmakers also significantly weakened provisions designed to prod colleges to curb tuition and related fee increases.
Several proposed amendments advanced by Democrats were defeated, including an amendment designed to lower interest rates that borrowers are charged on student loans. A Republican-sponsored amendment that would have required colleges to submit a report to the Education Department on how colleges take "race" into account when making admission decisions was also defeated.
While the Senate version of the HEA reauthorization contains a provision that seeks to award three-year grants to institutions to establish or strengthen postsecondary academic programs focusing on Western civilization and American history, the House bill contains no similar program authorization.
On March 22, 2006, the National Coalition for History (NCH) hand-delivered a letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Susan M. Collins renewing the history coalition's request made last year for the Senate to conduct general oversight hearings on the management, programs, and activities of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Both before and following the confirmation of Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein last year, the coalition advanced to Collins's committee a request that a general oversight hearing be conducted. With the exception of Weinstein's hour-long confirmation hearing, it has now been over a decade since the Senate paid any attention to the operating programs under NARA's administration and jurisdiction. During his confirmation hearing, Weinstein welcomed the opportunity for the Senate to scrutinize NARA's program and, according to inside NARA sources, his attitude has not changed since then.
The letter, signed by NCH President and AHA Executive Director Arnita Jones, points out a number of issues that make a Senate hearing now especially timely. In addition to the issues mentioned in earlier requests—such as the concern over stolen documents and documents improperly handled by high government officials (most recently National Security Advisor Sandy Berger)—the letter also notes the need for a Senate investigation into the alarming "secret" reclassification program (which the archivist suspended, pending completion of an Information Security Oversight Office audit). The letter also points out the need for a progress report and a discussion of the long-term needs of the Electronic Records Archives project, discussion of administrative aspects of the Presidential Library system (including the recent agreement between NARA and the Nixon Library foundation), the need for scrutiny over the implementation of the Presidential Records Act, as well as the need to consider a proposal for a higher authorization for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). All these, the letter states, are deserving of Senate's "scrutiny and serious consideration." NCH staff anticipate meeting with Senate staff to discuss the letter in the near future.