Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Earmarks and Archives

Earmarks and archives are two topics near and dear to our hearts, so we obviously took notice when they both came under attack by Taxpayers for Common Sense last week.[1]  The interest group expressed disdain for a pair of $10 million earmarks included in the Defense Appropriations bill to support the organization and preservation of the congressional papers collections of late-Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and late-Representative John Murtha (D-PA).  In addition the appropriations would support the creation of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the John P. Murtha Center for Public Service at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Before continuing it is important to make clear that earmarks in support of congressional papers collections are exceedingly rare; at most there have been a dozen such earmarks in the history of the country (much to the chagrin of university libraries and university administrators nationwide).

We are college professors.  Our daily lives are consumed with teaching students about American politics and political institutions, and conducting academic research focused on Congress, the president, and appropriations politics.  In our research we rely heavily on the archived papers of members of Congress and, to some extent, presidents.  Between the two of us we have used about 100 of these collections; we have written three books (with two more in progress) and a number of academic journal articles.  Archived papers provide an opportunity to “get behind the scenes” of the member’s office and understand politics as it happens in real time, and to collect data that are otherwise impossible to access.  These collections provide insight into the legislative process and the making of American history that, if unpreserved, will be lost to the ravages of time and benign neglect.

The papers of members of Congress are peppered throughout the country.  Considered the personal property of the member of Congress he or she, upon retirement, defeat, or death may, at their discretion, donate their papers to any willing repository.  More often than not if the member does donate their papers (remember it is at their discretion) they wind up at a university in the member’s old district or state.

In most cases there is little or no funding made available to organize and preserve these collections, unless the member provides it or another donor can be found. Hundreds or thousands of boxes (depending on how long the member served, whether they served in the House or Senate, and how good they were about saving their files) arrive at the university library.[2]  The library may or may not have a dedicated archivist on staff; if they do the chances are good that the archivist is not trained to cope with collections as large and complex as those that come from a member’s office.[3] 

For these paper collections to be useful to students, academics, and others they must be processed and described and that costs money; money for staff, space, proper storage, and the like. 

The research value of the two collections is beyond debate.  As intensive users of these resources we guarantee that we will be among the first to exploit the immense research potential of these collections.  Senator Kennedy’s papers will provide insight into some of the most important legislation to pass through Congress in the last 40 years: Voting Rights, Immigration Laws, health care policy, and much more.  Representative Murtha’s papers will provide tremendous insight into the appropriations process and defense policy among other topics.

Does it take a multimillion dollar investment?  In most cases, no; but in these two cases Congress has taken the extra step of investing in centers that memorializes these two important figures and will provide a service to the broader community.  The Kennedy the Institute for the U.S. Senate is a one-of-a-kind center dedicated to the study of the Senate; there is no center in the country devoted to the study of the Senate.  Relative to the U.S. House the Senate receives little scholarly attention; a center focused on the study of the Senate could promote more intensive study of the Senate and, more importantly, provide a context for better educating the public on this complex institution.  Students at U. Mass Boston, and visitors from around the country—many of whom are visiting Boston to learn more about its rich history and place in the story of America—will have the opportunity to learn more about the Senate. 

Over the last several decades it has become increasingly difficult to convince students of the value of public service; we know from experience. The pervasive message coming out of our politics is that “government is the enemy.”  Who wants to work for “the enemy?”  The Murtha Center for Public Service (like the Stennis Center at Mississippi State University) could provide leadership in promoting public service as a career path, not only in Western Pennsylvania but throughout the country. 

In our view the mission that each of these centers will undertake is important to the national interest.  What is more important than understanding our democratic institutions and working in service to the public?  If anything we would advocate for more centers pursuing such lofty goals.  Better understanding of our national institutions helps democratic citizens develop trust in these institutions, understand the potential and the limitations of our political institutions, and inoculates them against demagoguery aimed at tearing down these bulwarks of democracy.

But, one might ask: “Are there programs within the federal government, subject to peer review, that could fund such projects?” Yes; but they are woefully underfunded.  Furthermore, because they are peer reviewed there is a built-in bias against using the funds to preserve the collections of “political elites.” For decades the academic study of history has focused on “public history”—shying away from “great man” theories of history—exhibiting a preference for focusing on collaborations with the public that preserve the collective history of groups, movements, and the like.  Thus, all things being equal, the Grateful Dead Archive at the University of Santa Cruz likely would receive competitive funding before an archive focused on a member of Congress.

One might also ask: “Could Congress create a program that would fund institutions that receive these collections in a more routine way; in a way that does not require an earmark?” Absolutely; but pundits, op-ed pages, and groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense would be lining up to criticize Congress for spending money on its former members, and scrutinizing the choice of which university got the papers.  Critics of Congress would, no doubt, concoct conspiracy theories and check with the Federal Election Commission to see how much money employees of the university donated to the member’s electoral campaigns over her career and suggesting a quid pro quo arrangement.

In the end earmarks are the only effective mechanism that the Congress has for preserving these collections and promoting larger goals like studying the Senate or promoting public service.  Rather than discouraging Congress from such action we should be encouraging Congress to enact a policy aimed at funding the preservation of the congressional collections and promoting the study of our extraordinary representative institution.

[1] Taxpayers for Common Sense Weekly Wastebasket, “Uncle Sam Shouldn’t Bankroll Lawmaker Libraries”, accessed August 6, 2010.
[2] The congressional papers of former Representative, Senator, Vice Presidential and Presidential Candidate Bob Dole (R-KS) reportedly filled an entire railway boxcar!
[3] The challenges associated with these collections spring, in part, from the fact that a member’s office is akin to a small business.  They handle hundreds or thousands of communications with constituents every week and employ several (to dozens) of staff to track public policy issues and legislation.  The Congressional Papers Roundtable is a formal grouping within the Society of American Archivists specializing in issues specifically related to the complexities of organizing and preserving congressional papers collections.  [As a follower of their email list I have seen quite a few emails from librarians that read “We just received this enormous collection of documents. Help!  What do I do now?!” –SQK]


  1. You say that you and your colleague have used "about 100" of these college archives. Yet, you also say "earmarks in support of congressional papers collections are exceedingly rare; at most there have been a dozen such earmarks in the history of the country.." So most of the archives you've successfully utilized are NOT funded by earmarks, correct? If so, how does this support your argument that earmarks are "the only effective mechanism that the Congress has for preserving these collections" ???

  2. Thanks for the question.

    The reference to "100" is meant to communicate that, when it comes to archives, we know the subject well; we have used these resources, we know their value, and we know what goes into making a collection useful.

    Do congressional papers collections get "preserved" at university libraries? Yes. They are given a warm, dry place. The question is whether they will be made useful. This is what requires resources for professional staff to organize and describe the collections in a way that makes them useful for students, faculty, and anyone interested in the rich material that is in many of these collections.

    With regard to preserving "these collections," that refers to the two particular collections that we are talking about here (Kennedy and Murtha), which, in our estimation (and the estimation of others), are collections of considerable importance. Because of the size and scope of these collections significant resources are necessary to prepare them for use by researchers and others.

    On a final note: It is important to remember that these collections are a small piece of American history, and preserving that history is important for our future.