advocacy today

Advocacy on Behalf of History: Reflections on the Past Twenty Years

Page Putnam Miller

Both the historical profession and the political scene in Washington have changed significantly in the last twenty years, and these changes have altered the way historians view advocacy. Within the historical profession, the major associations have become more akin to professional associations than to the old-style learned societies, and with this new orientation toward the well-being of the profession, there has been a commitment to supporting those federal policies that would advance the study and use o f history. Additionally, the rise of social history and instant scholarly exchanges via the Internet have resulted in shifts in the way historians teach, research, and communicate with each other. On the political front, the early 1980s brought dire warni ngs of budget deficits, which led to the cutting of many federal cultural programs. And by the 1990s, history got caught in sharp partisan battles as the House Republicans targeted the National Endow.

Page Putnam Miller has served for the past twenty years as the director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, a national advocacy office supported by fifty-nine historical and archival organizations. She received her Ph.D. i n American history from the University of Maryland in 1979. She has received a number of awards for her work, including a Distinguished Service Award in 1984 from the Society of American Archivists, the National Council on Public History's Robert Kelley M emorial Award in 1997, the Society for History in the Federal Government's Franklin D. Roosevelt Award in 1999 for her dedication to promoting history, and the American Historical Association's Troyer Steele Anderson Prize in 2000 for outstanding contribu tions to the advancement of the purposes of the Association ment for the Humanities (NEH) and other cultural agencies for elimination, arguing that it was not appropriate to use federal dollars for these nonessential purposes.

Within this mix of factors, the historical profession began in the early 1980s to question the adequacy of its existing practice of "ad hoc" advocacy, which was at best a sporadic spurt of activity. The historical associations' practice of occasionally having a senior historian come to Washington for a day to comment on a pending bill was no longer sufficient.

President Reagan's budget requests in 1981, recommending zero funding for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission's (NHPRC) grants program and a fifty percent cut for the National Endowment for the Humanities, provided the impetus for the formation of a permanent historical advocacy office. There were other issues as well. In the information policy arena, the draft of the Reagan Executive Order on classification and declassification policy that the administration disseminated in 1981, and issued in 1982, greatly slowed down the number of older government historical records being declassified. At the same time, Congress was considering amendments to the Freedom of Information Act which, if they had passed, would have seriously restricted the act's usefulness for scholarly research.

In the early 1980s it was the sense of the historical community that the time had come for a full-time staff person in Washington who could disseminate information on the latest legislative developments, establish contacts in congressional offices, and coordinate the profession's efforts at influencing federal policy. The leadership of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and the American Historical Association (AHA) supported a plan for pooling resources to establish an advocacy office. But instead of founding a new organization, the leadership of the profession decided to transform the mission of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC). Founded in 1976 as a response to the job crisis, the NCC had explored and highlighted employment options for historians in archives, museums, state and federal government, the corporate world, and state and national parks. After considerable debate, the Board of the NCC voted in December, 1982, to change its mission and the bylaws to become the central advocacy office in Washington for the historical and archival professionals.

A key development of this period was the alliance that developed between the historical and archival professions. The users of historical records and the keepers of historical records share concerns about the preservation of and access to the nation's records. In 1982 when NCC adopted revised bylaws that focused on advocacy, the Society of American Archivists, followed by other archival organizations, became a major contributor and a member of the NCC Policy Board. Although the archival organizations contribute only about ten percent of the current NCC budget, they have been a significant advocacy partner for historians in dealing with preservation of electronic records, declassification, copyright policy, and issues related to the National Archives. From a beginning in 1982 with thirty-three member organizations, the NCC has grown to fifty-nine organizations by 2000. However, when inflation is taken into account, the budget increase for an eighteen-year periodfrom $40,000 in 1982 to $98,000 in 1999is marginal if nonexistent.

While there have been changes in the profession's advocacy efforts in the last two decades, it is worth noting that some things have remained the same. The first is that the broad outline of the NCC agenda has been fairly constant. Support of historical programs, teaching, and research, as well as access to historical records, continued to focus on the viability of a strong National Archives, the commitment of the federal government to supporting the humanities, a policy of openness that makes all but the most sensitive historical records over twenty-five years old available for research, and comprehensive presentations of history in federal museums and parks that reflect recent scholarship. In some years the attention was on establishing a Historical Office in the House of Representatives, and in other years NCC concentrated on separating the National Archives from the General Services Administration. But the broad goals have remained the same.

A second factor that has remained unchanged throughout this period has been a commitment to a comprehensive view of advocacy. In trying to influence policy in ways that are advantageous to NCC's goals, the strategies have included a wide array of activities. Historians understood that advocacy involves not only monitoring congressional actions but also responding to drafts of federal regulations, commenting on agency planning documents, monitoring the writing and implementation of executive orders, keeping Congress informed of the recommendations of agency advisory committees, working with the press, and coordinating constituent members' litigation efforts.

A third unchanged factor is that NCC has continued to be staffed throughout this period by a one-person office, located in the American Historical Association building on Capitol Hill. The NCC Board is indebted to the AHA for its generous contribution of space. The AHA headquarters has been a superb location, with the House, Senate, and the Library of Congress all within a five-minute walk. Yet the reality of historical advocacy is that for two decades, there has been a growing agenda but limited human resources. Thus NCC tends to focus on those federal issues on which historians have special insights and interests, such as preservation of historical records, interpretation of historical sites, or access to historical documents that are still classified. While historians individually would tend to support increases in Pell Grants, the NCC has not ventured into educational policies that are on the agenda of large educational advocacy offices. Likewise the NCC, with its limited staff, has remained focused on federal policies, and not the policies of states or of private cultural institutions.

A fourth constant has been the reliance on briefing sheets as a most useful advocacy tool. The "NCC Briefing Sheets" have throughout this period retained the same format regardless of the topic. This format begins with a one-sentence "issue statement," a paragraph or two on background, a listing of the key talking points, a paragraph on the current situation, a list of the members of the House and Senate who serve on the pertinent committees, and finally a call for needed actions. The "Briefing Sheet" format also has the advantage of being easily modified to assist historians in writing to their members of Congress or revised for legislative aides to provide background material and to help them to understand issues about which they frequently know very little.

A final factor that has remained constant in the last two decades has been NCC's close working relationship with the library and public interest communities. The American Library Association (ALA), which is headquartered in Chicago, has a staff of over fifteen people in its Washington office who administer a strong library advocacy program. And in addition to ALA, there are a number of other influential library associations in Washington, such as the Association of Research Libraries and the American Association of Law Libraries, with which NCC works on issues such as equity in the use of the Internet and public access to court opinions. Likewise, NCC shares interests with the National Security Archive and the Federation of American Scientists, for both organizations are committed to working for the reform of the nation's security information policy and of increasing access to historical records.

While NCC's advocacy goals and strategies have changed little, the environment in which NCC works has changed. The two key changes that I wish to address are the impact of the federal budget deficits and the sharp partisan conflicts on cultural matters.

Although both the administration and Congress now regularly discuss budget surpluses, there remains a sizable federal budget deficit that built up steadily during the 1980s and much of the 1990s. In 1997 Congress passed budget deficit legislation that imposed caps on the amount of spending for the next five years on discretionary programs, which includes the budgets of most federal agencies. To have met these caps, sharp cuts in many agency budgets would have been required in the FY 2000 budget. However, by a combination of smoke and mirrors, using a loop hole of "emergency" funding and deferring some payroll costs until FY 2001, Congress and the president managed to pass a FY 2000 budget that appeared to retain the limits imposed in 1997. But all this maneuvering in 1999 will make it even harder for Congress in 2000, an election year, to pass an FY 2001 budget.

Both President Reagan's proposed budget in 1981 and the House Republicans' 1994 "Contract with America" targeted cultural programs for sharp cuts. While some members of Congress based their opposition to funding federal cultural programs on the grounds that the budget deficit did not allow for funding these "extra" programs, others criticized the cultural agencies for providing grants to elite scholars who studied topics of little interest to most citizens.

In defending programs such as the NEH and the grants program of the NHPRC, the historical profession had to make a case for the value of history. The assumption that historical knowledge contributed to the well-being of the country was no longer widely held. Historians had to get back to the basics and argue that the strength of our nation and the quality of our civic life are rooted in the humanities, which provide a deeper understanding of life and of society. Furthermore, it was necessary to show that NEH had an impressive record of fostering an enhanced understanding of American identity and history that enriches citizen participation in public affairs. In promoting the grants program of the NHPRC, Edmund S. Morgan in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal stressed that "it is disconcerting to be told that the government conceived and established by the Founding Fathers is reluctant to underwrite the publication of their ideas."1 In advocating funding for NHPRC, historians frequently voiced the theme that the publication of documentary historical materials should be an accepted practice of a democratic government.

Although federal cultural programs survived the 1994 "Contract with America" call for their elimination, many are operating with greatly reduced funds. NEH, which was funded at $172 million in FY 1995, was cut 38 percent the following year and has in the last four years been able to regain only a token amount of the loss, with the FY 2000 budget raised to only $115.3 million.

The attack on the budgets of cultural agencies has had the potential of dividing the humanities community as limited funding becomes even more scarce. For example, those who wish to see the demise of NEH have advocated that the national office be eliminated and that humanities funding go directly as block grants to the states. Similarly, the campaign by historians for additional funding for grants to historical documentary editing programs drew criticism from archivists wanting more money to go to research on electronic records, However, the NCC has sought to keep the focus on the shared objectives and the need to restore funding to the cultural agencies that have lost ground both due to budget cuts and the erosion of inflation.

A part of the larger budget reduction issue has been the pressure on federal agencies to downsize staffs and programs. Many in the scholarly community question whether the federal cultural agencies can embrace some of the efficiencies and new management approaches of the corporate world without seriously reducing their services. For a number of years, the NCC testimony on the administration's budget request for the National Archives has pointed out that the National Archives cannot be asked to do more with less for very many years without seriously undermining its legal mandates. The Federal Records and the Presidential Records Acts give to the National Archives responsibility for identifying, preserving, arranging, describing, and servicing federal and presidential records. Yet the National Archives has had a lean budget for many years and does not have the resources needed to work closely with agency staff to -determine which federal records should be retained and which should be destroyed. The humanities community has had to make the case that a consequence of "downsizing" could well be that adequate and proper documentation of federal policies and activities will be lost.

Taking advantage in 1999 of the emphasis of the federal Millennium Office to preserve the nation's shared heritage, NCC has worked with a number of historical organizations to seek White House support for establishing a historical office in the major federal agencies that currently do not have one. Unfortunately the large majority of the major federal departments and agencies do not have historical offices. Thus it is important to point out the many services to agencies that historical offices could provide, including preserving and documenting an agency's history, providing the expert historical knowledge essential to informed decision making, and producing a broad range of reference and historical materials. Historical offices provide agencies with valuable institutional memory, a crucial component to an agency's sense of identity as well as for enhancing its ability to fulfill its mission. Although historians anticipate opposition to this initiative due to budgetary concerns, the NCC is working to show that the benefits of these offices would far outweigh the costs.

At the National Park Service, the lack of adequate historical studies of cultural sites has often meant that management decisions have had to be made about the future of historic parks without sufficient information. This often leads to more problems down the road. As corporate management strategies become more widely used in government, advocates for the humanities have to be vigilant to identify those ways in which research and education programs suffer from being forced into a model designed for the productivity of the "for profit" world.

Clearly Congress's deficit-reduction strategies of cutting scarce dollars for the humanities has been a challenge not only for making sure that agencies have the resources to accomplish their legal mandates but also for keeping the humanities community together for a coordinated advocacy approach.

A second major change in the political climate today is the sharp partisan divisions and the difficulty in getting broad bipartisan support. It is not unusual to hear members of the humanities community voice concern about the changed mood on the Hill and note that it would probably be impossible today to pass the Freedom of Information Act or to pass legislation to establish the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

The desire of political leaders to get attention by repeating simplistic and distorted one-liners fires the partisan flames. The culture wars have been a small side show within the larger partisan battles. Conservatives charge "politically correct" scholars with abandoning political and diplomatic history to dwell on multicultural issues and with distorting history by presenting a dark side of America's past. The accusations surrounding the National History Standards illustrated the degree to which misleading comments and one-liners dominated the debate. Lynne Cheney, who chaired the NEH from 1986 to 1993, highlighted in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece the fact that the National Standards mentioned Senator Joseph McCarthy nineteen times, but there was no mention of Thomas Edison.2 In what is frequently called a "bean counting approach," Cheney failed to make adequate distinctions between the content of the core thirty-one standards that are divided into ten eras, and the 2,600 sample assignments that accompanied the standards and assist teachers in involving students in exercises that promote critical thinking skills. Whereas some, like Cheney, rejected the standards because they were too "politically correct," others accused them of being too academically rigorous and too expensive to implement.3 However, it is well to note that the National Standards survived the attack in a revised form. The Council for Basic Education, which convened a high-level panel to review the standards, released a report that concluded that the proposed standards, as separate from the teaching samples, provide a reasonable set of expectations for learning and a solid basis for strengthening the teaching of history.4

Perhaps the greatest challenge that history has on Capitol Hill, and with the public in general, is conveying an understanding of the craft of history. There is a popular notion that history is a set of facts. Historians need to explain that in planning the narrative for a historical exhibit, the decision of when to begin the story and whose voices to include are all part of historical interpretation, and there is no way to present the facts without making interpretive decisions. Furthermore, the work of history is never finished. Historians are always finding and using new documentary sources, and posing new questions that lead to new research, which in turn contributes to an enriched and more accurate understanding of the past. All historians engage in revising and enhancing our perceptions of the past, yet "revisionist" history has a very negative connotation on Capitol Hill.

One of the most discouraging aspects of the partisan climate is the decline of cooperative efforts between the two political parties in getting needed legislation passed. Many on Capitol Hill agree that it would be impossible in 2000 to secure passage of the 1991 law that sought to assure the integrity of the State Department's respected historical documentary series, Foreign Relations of the United States. The 1991 amendment to the State Department Basic Authorities Act included provisions to ensure publication of a through, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major U.S. foreign policy activities. The co-sponsors of this bill in the Senate included the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as well as the Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Additionally, the staffs of these committees, and their counterparts in the House, worked in a most congenial and cooperative way to pass a fairly complicated bill, which included controversial provisions dealing with access to CIA records.5 Unlike the 101st Congress, which passed many bills, the 105th and 106th Congresses have been bogged down in partisan rhetoric, and few bills, other than the appropriations bills, have passed.

There have always been many young and fairly inexperienced legislative aides in congressional offices, but this trend seems to be accelerating. Particularly in the House, where there was a major turnover in senior staff in 1994 and where there has been downsizing of offices, it is not unusual for an aide in his or her mid-twenties to be in charge of setting up a congressional hearing. This includes gathering background material, making recommendations for witnesses, and writing a range of possible questions for the witnesses for the consideration of the representative chairing the hearing. Some legislative aides who have to cover multiple issues about which they know very little learn to rely on a range of outsiders to bring them up to speed quickly on relevant issues. These situations can have a positive side and often present exceptional opportunities for NCC to provide some needed assistance and to ensure that issues of importance to historians get highlighted.

One of the few bright spots in the 106th Congress was the oversight hearing held on October 20, 1999 by the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology of the Committee on Government Reform on the National Archives. This hearing marked the first time in over twenty years that any congressional committee has held a broad oversight hearing on the many preservation and access issues facing the National Archives. There have been hearings about particular, narrow issues, but no broad oversight hearing. The historical and archival communities are most indebted to Representative Stephen Horn (R-CA) for holding this hearing and for his plans for additional hearings.

While the Congress has experienced gridlock, technology and the Internet have been marching forward at a rapid pace, bringing new and better ways for historians to communicate. Through the ability to publish on the Internet, it is now possible for the NCC to reach thousands of historians and archivists on a regular basis. In January, 1995, the NCC began publishing regular "NCC Washington Updates" on the Internet through the H-Net and on various other lists.6 These reports provide current information on legislation, hearings, markups, and federal policy issues of concern to historians and archivists. They have played a key role in keeping historians and archivists informed so that they can register their concerns with legislators at the appropriate time. Although there has been no systematic study of the impact of Internet communications on the effectiveness of historian's lobbying efforts, many legislative aides testify to hearing frequently from very informed historians.

The "NCC Washington Updates" have broadened the advocacy network of historians and archivists far beyond anything that could have been imagined just a few years ago. A one-person office, with a small budget for mailing, is suddenly able to reach historians across the country in a timely and cost-effective manner. Successful advocacy has always depended on communication between the central advocacy office and the constituencies. Through the Internet, the NCC not only sends timely updates but also receives from numerous individuals valuable background information and alerts about a wide range of issues.

The enormous amount of information on the Internet today, however, has overwhelmed many historians and users. Thus the NCC has adopted as one of its goals assisting with the overload of information. By providing an "information diet" that gives timely, accurate information in small portions, the "NCC Washington Updates" have gained a sizable following of readers, well beyond the historical and archival communities, of those who value the concise information presented in a practical format.

The "NCC Washington Updates" have played a significant role in creating in the historical and archival communities a much more knowledgeable constituency, wiser in the ways of the appropriations process and the maneuvering of Capitol Hill. Because some of the postings on the Internet are based more on rumor or on a hunch than on hard information, the NCC has placed a high priority on getting reliable and accurate information for the "Updates." There is a commitment to placing this information in a context that makes it understandable and to avoid, when possible, the use of legislative and legal jargon. Successful advocacy depends on careful timing of letters, appeals, and contacts and on a clear statement of what is needed. Through the "Updates," historians and archivists have the information they need to make their case in an informed and persuasive way to their members of Congress.

The historical profession has moved a long way in its advocacy efforts from the 1970s, when only a few individuals engaged in occasional lobbying activities. And it is worth noting that history's sister disciplinesEnglish literature, philosophy, and political sciencehave joined in some broad advocacy coalitions (such as the National Humanities Alliance, which focuses primarily on NEH, and the Consortium of Social Science Associations, which devotes special attention to the National Science Foundation) but have not established their own advocacy offices. In recent years, the American Political Science Association has become a major contributor to the NCC and a member of the NCC Policy Board; and historians have welcomed this development, for we share many concerns with political scientists about access to government information. However, because history is the only one of the humanities disciplines with an advocacy office, the NCC staff person is frequently asked to participate in many more events and strategy sessions than is possible.

On every issue on the NCC agenda there are many unrealized opportunitiescontacts with legislative aides that were not made, letters to agency heads that were never sent, follow-up conversations with allies that didn't happen, and detailed analysis and comment on proposed federal regulations that were not prepared. There is never enough time for a one-person office to pursue all of the many avenues that have a potential for fostering historians' federal policy agenda. The NCC Board made an early decision that NCC would emphasize several key issues and cover a range of issues. As special legislative opportunities have arisen, such as the 1984 legislation to separate the National Archives from the General Services Administration or the 1991 State Department legislation to ensure the integrity of the Foreign Relations series, the NCC has given priority to legislation with prospects for setting new policy directions. Some may say that NCC should not try to monitor so many issues, but others are greatly appreciative of NCC reports that provide one place where all of the major policy issues of concern to historians are covered.

In 1995, when NCC assumed a greater reporting role with almost weekly Internet updates, the role of NCC shifted more to keeping the fifty-nine NCC member organizations informed and letting the individual organizations take the lead in taking policy positions. The NCC serves now more as a clearinghouse of information and as a facilitator, working upon request with the individual NCC member organizations on the issues they consider most pressing.

As I make plans to leave NCC and to move this summer to South Carolina to engage in new history opportunities, including being a visiting professor at the University of South Carolina, I am also reflecting fondly on twenty wonderful years at the NCC and thinking about where the NCC needs to go in the future. I have been most fortunate at the NCC to have had a front-row seat and have on occasion been able to be a player in some very exciting policy developments. Each year there have been new issues and new challenges, so the job was never boring. However, the historical profession will have to think realistically about the limitations imposed on an advocacy office with a staff of only one. A related issue is how the fifty-nine NCC member organizations can become more involved in the work of advocacy, that is in making visits on Capitol Hill, responding to agency requests for comments, and weighing in regularly on pending issues. There has too often been a tendency by the leaders of many NCC organizations to leave the work of advocacy to NCC. But NCC's efforts alone are quite limited. Although the historical profession's advocacy efforts have made significant strides in the recent decades, there is much work to be done.

1. Edmund S. Morgan, "Honor Thy Founding Fathers," The Wall Street Journal, 23 April 1997.
2. Lynne V. Cheney, "The End of History," The Wall Street Journal, 20 October 1994.
3. Arnita A. Jones, "Our Stake in the History Standards," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 January 1996.
4. Page Putnam Miller, "NCC Washington Update," vol. 1, no. 53 (11 March 1995).

5. For a summary of the passage of this legislation see Athan G. Theoharis, ed., A Culture of Secrecy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), which includes a chapter on the passage of this legislation titled "We Can't Yet Read Our Own Mail: Access to the Records of the Department of State," by Page Putnam Miller.
6. A complete backfile of "NCC Washington Updates" is maintained by H-Net and may be seen on the World Wide Web at

The Public Historian, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 3950
(Spring 2000). ISSN: 0272-3433
© 2000 by the Regents of the University of California and the
National Council on Public History. All rights reserved.
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