What Budget Cuts Look Like, 1981

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.

Swearing in of Dr. Robert Warner as Sixth Archivist of the United States. Wife Jane holding the Bible, and daughter Jennifer looking on, July 15, 1980. (NAID 518163, Local Identifier 64-PF-7-15-80-D-4)

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.

2 issues of On the Record, one with more polished binding
Pre and Post budget cut issues of On the Record, January and April 1981

Budget cuts could be trivial – like no more professional printing and binding for the newsletter and new folder titles.

folder w/written title "Budget Reduction 1981" and "CUT" on the side of folder
Folder, Budget Reduction, 1981. Records relating to External Affairs, 1978-1990 (NAID 12080875)

Cuts also touched opportunities for professionalization within the archival field, affecting the relationship between the Archives and the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

NARS/GSA relations, effect cuts will have on staff ability to do work
“But Who’ll Sift the Flotsam and Jetsam?” The Washington Post, Jan 22, 1982

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.

Selected Remarks of Gerald Carmen, Administrator of General Services, to Employees of the National Archives and Records Service, Mar 18, 1982

Then he took questions.

Questions presented to and answered by Gerald Carmen

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.

“Archives Users Lament Budget Cuts” The New York Times, Mar 16, 1982
memo outlining reassignments of office space with the 20% reduction in officespace from budget cuts
Memorandum from Claudine Weiher re: Office Space Relocations, April 7, 1982, Program Files of Wendell Evans re the National Archives and Records Service, 1981-84 (NAID 313189581)

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.

piece in support of the House following the Senate to declare NARA an independent agency again
“Free the Archives” The Washington Post, July 31, 1984

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.

staff of NARA stand in front of the Archives building, a banner of National Archives and Reocrds Admn 1985 is held in the front
NARA Independence Day, April 1, 1985 (NAID 66776532, Local ID: 64-CFD-19850401-01-001)
THE END, General Services Administration, Photos of Records Mgmt Training Subjects and the San Bruno, CA Federal Archives and Records Center, 1960-1978 (NAID 291421787)

For further reading on the National Archives’ independence and/or the RIF period:

Many thanks to Netisha Currie for her assistance with this post.

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