As Congress returns to work this week, one issue that historians are watching with interest involves the budget for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. This commission has been part of the National Archives and Records Administration since 1934, and has been making grants since 1964 to preserve and publish non-federal records of historical value.
After the last election, the National Coalition for History reported that the incoming House leadership might try to cut the N.H.P.R.C.’s budget significantly:
As far back as the Reagan administration, Republicans have been trying to eliminate the NHPRC. Earlier this year, House Republicans asked the public to vote on their website for federal programs to eliminate and the NHPRC came out near the top. Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have blocked NHPRC reauthorization legislation in the House by threatening to offer amendments that would gut the program. Without an authorization, the NHPRC might be vulnerable to elimination.That House Republican website mentioned there is the YouCut page on Rep. Eric Cantor’s site. When I first heard about that, I thought it listed all the parts of the federal budget so that we citizens could weigh their value, rather like this New York Times webpage. Instead, it simply listed some programs Cantor and his party colleagues saw as unnecessary; the interactive gimmick invites visitors to choose which seemed most unnecessary that week.
In late October, the site hopped on the controversy over Juan Williams’s comments on Fox News to suggest cutting funding for National Public Radio. Apparently that funding hadn’t been unnecessary before. The election soon followed, and then the site stopped being updated. Presumably the original list of targets remains, but Cantor and his House colleagues, now in the majority, no longer seek input the same way.
At a hearing about the N.H.P.R.C. in June 2010 by the House subcommittee overseeing the National Archives, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), then the Speaker’s representative on the commission, argued that 90% of the commission’s funding creates or saves jobs. Historians and archivists testified about the value of the projects it funds.
The N.H.P.R.C. has been particularly generous toward projects to preserve and publish the papers of America’s Founders—ironically, the historical figures that the new House Republicans’ most vocal supporters say they revere. In December the commission announced:
Publishing Grants totaling $1.7 million were awarded for 12 publishing projects from the U.S. Colonial and Early National Period, including the papers of Founders Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.Recent grants have supported putting papers online, as with the Adams Papers from the Massachusetts Historical Society, available to the public for free. The commission is working with the University of Virginia to do the same for its Washington Papers. Everyone researching Revolutionary history benefits from those resources.
However, the likely cuts threaten projects on lesser-known politicians of that generation, such as the unpublished papers of Robert Treat Paine. And I suspect that projects on other periods of American history might be at even greater risk. (Here are all the grants awarded in Massachusetts over time, showing the range.)
I think it makes sense to discuss what our federal government can pay for, given the economy, the deficit built up since 2001, and society’s other pressing needs. There might be an inefficient overlap between the N.H.P.R.C.’s grants and those from the National Endowment for the Humanities. However, I think any such discussion needs to be conducted on an open, honest basis, with all federal expenditures examined together. The N.H.P.R.C. is a very small part of the national budget, and may provide an unusually long-lasting benefit to our national culture.