The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) budget has remained stagnant in real dollars for nearly thirty years. At roughly $320 million dollars when adjusted for inflation, its budget represents 0.0076% of the federal budget — this according to a National Security Archive Audit released today to mark the beginning of Sunshine Week.
While its budget has flatlined, the number of records NARA must preserve, particularly electronic records, has increased exponentially over three decades. The George H.W. Bush Library, for example, has 20 gigabytes of electronic records in its holdings, whereas the Obama Library has 250 terabytes. This explosion of electronic records is a huge part of the growing backlog for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests at the presidential libraries, which constitute only part of NARA’s holdings.
A recent letter to our office from the George W. Bush Library encapsulates the gravity of the crisis: in response to an estimated date of completion query for a FOIA request, the library replied “we estimate that your FOIA may be completed in 12 years. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding and patience.” (Emphasis added.)
NARA is stretched too thin in normal times, and its insufficient budget and statutory authority were no match for the Trump administration’s disdain for records management. From a President who regularly destroyed records, to executive branch agencies like the Department of Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency that followed Trump’s lead, it was hard-pressed to protect government records in real time.
Now is a critical time for the agency to course-correct. The current Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), David Ferriero, will step down in April after 12 challenging years on the job. President Biden has an opportunity now to pick a successor who builds on Ferriero’s successes, like strongly supporting the Office of Government Information Services and maintaining a good relationship with the public to help improve NARA’s services. Above all, President Biden must also choose someone who will loudly advocate for a budget that reflects the critical services NARA provides, and will take full advantage of all of the agency’s statutory authority, and push for more. This will help ensure that NARA functions like the nation’s living memory and back-up hard drive, rather than an attic for old documents. Without these qualities, NARA will continue to be underwater, and the public’s access to its records and a full accounting of its history will remain in serious doubt.