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From The Coalition Column of the October 2006 Perspectives

NARA's Budget Blues: Can Anything Be Done to Help the Agency?

Bruce Craig, October 2006

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein has faced a number of challenges since taking the helm of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). None are so daunting, and I'm sure, as frustrating to him as is the proposed fiscal 2007 budget for his agency. According to Hill insiders, unless Congress acts when it reconciles the budget proposals of the House and Senate in conference—and unless the committees throw tradition to the wind and provide an infusion of new money for the agency that neither the House nor Senate to date have independently approved—next fiscal year NARA will be some $8–11 million below what it really needs as a minimum operational base.

Anticipating a drastic reduction in its budget in fiscal 2007 NARA has already begun taking steps in response to the anticipated shortfall. For example, a hiring freeze went into effect on July 3; just days later, NARA requested and obtained approval from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for early retirement authority and permission to advance to employees voluntary separation initiatives; the goal was to cut expenses by moving some in NARA's aging workforce out of the agency or into early retirement. Finally, the archivist proposed new rules regarding reduced hours of operation—no more weekend hours, no more evening hours—that could dramatically affect researchers who seek access to NARA facilities in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country.

So who is responsible for the NARA budget blues? The president for his unrealistic budget proposal? Congress for failing to inject funds for the agency's real needs? The archivist for not having sufficient political clout with the White House or Congress? The history and archives community for not adequately making the case for NARA funding needs to their elected lawmakers? Or, are other factors responsible?

The president and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)—the latter being that group of number-crunchers who have virtual control over the funding proposals for most federal agencies—did little this year to formulate a realistic budget for NARA. In order to meet the president's call to keep the federal deficit down, programmatic needs that were articulated by the archivist in private meetings with OMB officials in the early stages of the budget cycle were dismissed, and important programs such as the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) were pared down by millions in order to stay within budget targets. A key OMB official also chose to continue his personal war on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), which he considers "duplicative" of the documentary editions programs of the National Endowment for the Humanities; as a consequence, for the second year in a row, OMB proposed zeroing out this vital program.

When the budget proposal reached the House and Senate congressional committees for their consideration, because of funding allotments embraced by the Republican leadership, there simply were not sufficient funds in the committee allocations for appropriators to find monies from other federal agencies to fund NARA's base needs—that's how lean the budget actually is this year. The House recommended funding at the president's request level—$289.605 million. But once the modest committee funding recommendations reached the full House, in a surprise maneuver Representative Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.) successfully managed to insert a $8 million "offset" (translation—a cut from NARA's budget) on the House floor to inject some funds into another federal program (drug interdiction) that had been zeroed out of the federal budget entirely. The final bill that passed the House pegged the NARA budget at only $281.605 million.

The action in the Senate was a little better, but not by much. The full Appropriations Committee reduced the president's request by $3.692 million (funding set aside to begin operations at the Nixon Library), and while the committee allocated funds for NHPRC grants, it neglected to include $2 million needed by the commission for administration and support.

Throughout this many month process the Archivist and NARA's partnering history and archives organizations, including the National Coalition for History and the American Historical Association, did what they could to influence lawmakers to inject upwards of $12–15 million into NARA that was universally agreed would be bare-bones essential for the agency to operate. But largely because of the perception by lawmakers that NARA's needs do not trump what are considered more vital federal programs and activities (that is, defense and homeland security, programs housing for the aged, basic health and human services) that collective advocacy effort largely fell on deaf ears. It was not because of congressional apathy for NARA's important programs, or due to a lack of constituent communications with members (they were record number this year)—it failed because the needed dollars in the federal budget simply are not there.

Then, another unfortunate turn of events—relentless rain drenched much of the East Coast, prompting power outages, flooding, and building closures. What is considered by the National Weather Service as "the most intense rainfall in a 24-hour period in the history of Washington, D.C." left the National Archives (NARA) and several other D.C.-based cultural institutions flooded and closed. A week later another flood caused water damage to some 15,000 boxes of federal records at NARA's Suitland facility. Total cost resulting from this year's flood damage is in the millions of dollars. Nature then also contributed its part in taking a toll on NARA budget.

So what is the economic forecast for NARA's budget? At best NARA may see the full president's request of just over $289 million approved in conference, but like all federal agencies, NARA's final budget number will probably not be determined until after the November elections. If, as a result of those elections, the House or Senate or both fall under the control of the Democrats, there is a chance (slight for fiscal 2007, but perhaps the fiscal environment of a Congress controlled by the Democratic party would be more conducive to higher numbers for NARA in fiscal 2008) that the financial crunch could ease up.

But no matter which political party wins ends up controlling Congress, there is a lesson for all of us. What is required in the federal budget is not just fiscal discipline. Even more crucial is an injection of new funds into the federal budget by lawmakers—funds sufficient to ease the current budget crisis and start the nation once again on a fiscally responsible road toward deficit reduction. Indeed, Congress will need to become more informed and mindful of the actual base operational needs of not just NARA but all federal agencies.

—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at rbcraig@historycoalition.org.