Today’s post was written by Alan Walker, archivist in Accessioning and Basic Processing at the National Archives in College Park
And so, we enter the now-annual ritual of waiting and seeing if the National Archives (and most of the rest of the Federal Government) opens on October 1, or shuts down.
The agency has been weathering financial storms since well before our modern shutdown era began in the mid-1990s. Anxiety over the paucity of funding for our operations has a long history. Before the agency had been operating for a full 15 years, the memo “Why the National Archives Needs More Money” calls attention to the effect understaffing has had in the ability for workers to perform essential functions of the Archives – repairing and arranging records – since World War II cuts.
The process of budget preparation – submission to OMB (Office of Management and Budget), revisions and resubmissions, consumes our staff. But to be informed that your agency’s budget will be slashed, regardless? Well, no one can prepare for that.
Dr. Robert M. Warner was certainly aware of the situation that NARS (the then National Archives and Records Service) faced, placed as it was within the General Services Administration’s (GSA) hierarchy. Although the Archives was established as an independent agency, it was placed under the GSA in 1949 thanks to a recommendation from the Hoover Commission.
In 1981, the incoming Reagan administration wasted no time in establishing its priorities. And new GSA Administrator Gerald Carmen was the bearer of bad news.
The cuts would touch nearly every aspect of the Archives’ operations. Luckily, we have the receipts in the documents created in RG 64, the record group for the National Archives.
Budget cuts could be trivial – like no more professional printing and binding for the newsletter and new folder titles.
Cuts also touched opportunities for professionalization within the archival field, affecting the relationship between the Archives and the Society of American Archivists (SAA).
The most impactful budget cuts were crushing. It was ultimately determined that employees would be subject to RIF, a Reduction in Force. Nearly 20% of the RIFs issued to the GSA were to National Archives staff.
In the midst of this tumultuous time, one affected employee took time to extend his appreciation for the opportunity to have been a part of the agency.
Administrator Carmen visited the Archives to explain the rationale behind the rampant cuts and RIFs, but he only succeeded in alienating the staff even more with his tone-deaf rhetoric.
Then he took questions.
Not just our staff, but many who used the Archives’ resources, were moved to express their concern for the state of things, advocacy that has long been integral to the Archives’ story.
Then there was the meddling with management. Rumors swirled that the head of the agency would soon be replaced with an arms dealer, and that agency leadership was being pushed out by the GSA Administrator.
Dr. Warner came into office lamenting, like many others, GSA’s leadership of the National Archives. This demoralizing experience further girded him for the long and difficult fight to secure independent status for our agency.
Although Congressmen had been introducing bills for an independent National Archives starting in 1980, it took the difficult experience of the RIFs and a tense relationship with the GSA for the effort to succeed. Senator Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) introduced S. 905 in March 1983. From then on many historical and archival associations, societies, organizations, and individuals spoke out and lent their support to the cause of independence. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on October 19, 1984.
For further reading on the National Archives’ independence and/or the RIF period:
- The Decentralization of Archives Debate and National Archives Independence, 1979-1984, by Dr. Greg Bradsher
- An Independent National Archives, by Kaitlin Errickson
- NARA Marks Twentieth Anniversary of Independence Legislation, by John W. Carlin
- Worthy of its Staff: The National Archives Assembly, 1980-2005 (2005)
- Diary of a Dream: A History of the National Archives Independence Movement, 1980-1985, Robert M. Warner (1995)
Many thanks to Netisha Currie for her assistance with this post.