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My name is Michael McReynolds, and today I am representing the National Archives and Records Administration. I am the Director of the Legislative Archives Division at the National Archives. We are grateful
for the opportunity to provide information to the
Subcommittee on Rules of the House of the United States House of Representatives on the records of the House. We are also pleased that this opportunity comes as a result of our somewhat newly independent status within the Federal
Ever since the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the administrative and committee records of the House of Representatives have been received, preserved, and made available to the American public at the National Archives. The first accession of records totalled almost 10,000 cubic feet of records and included the earliest documents of the House when it first met in 1789. Now records are regularly transferred after the time lapse of 2 Congresses; we now have more than 23,000 cubic feet of House records in the Legislative Archives Division.
As you know the records are, and will remain, in the legal custody of the House. The United States is unique in the western world in that the national archives of this
country not only has the records of the executive branch of
Government, but also the records of both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. Some people have chided us that this arrangement conflicts with the separation of powers, but the National Archives believes the housing of the records of all three branches of Government is based on the trust those three branches have in the National Archives. The arrangement certainly facilitates research and makes the
public record easily available to the American people.
The archival responsibility where the trust is most necessary and tested each day is that of granting access to records we hold. The law and executive orders governing
access to Federal records attempt to strike a balance
between the public's right to know about its Government and the Government's need to protect some information from immediate disclosure. In practice that means State Department records from the 1950's are being declassified and made available to the public; Office of Management and Budget records from the 1960's in the National Archives are open; the bulk of President Gerald Ford's records can be examined by citizens; and many Federal agencies are opening very recent records in response to Freedom of Information
Access to the records of the House of Representatives,
however, is restricted for 50 years. As you may imagine, researchers coming to the National Archives are often stunned when they learn of the 50-year rule. They are unable to see any unpublished House records after September 17, 1936. If they are interested in the workings of the House during the second administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, they cannot see the records. That is also true
for World War II and the Korean War. We have enforced the
50-year rule since the House records were opened for
research, but it is increasingly difficult to explain the
rationale of the rule to citizens who come to the National Archives and can see much more recent records of many Federal agencies, the Supreme Court, and the United States Senate.
What are the records that are being kept closed for 50 years and who are the people seeking access to those records? The records are the administrative and committee records of the House. They are the bill files from the committees; the petitions from citizens to the House; the correspondence and reports from the White House and executive agencies; and the transcripts of hearings and other records related to the official work of the House. They do not include the office files of individual Congressmen which remain the personal property of the Members.
The people who seek access to those House records are historians, political scientists, lawyers, and many family historians. In fact genealogists make up the majority of our researchers, as you can see in the annual report submitted to Congress earlier this year and included as part of this testimony. In the 19th century, many citizens filed claims against the Government directly to Congress, and those claims files among the House records are excellent sources for family histories.
We believe the 50-year rule was instituted to protect the sitting Members of the House from political entanglements when access is granted to House records. As
you may surmise from my brief description of the House
records at the National Archives and the types of researchers who use the records, it is unlikely that many, if any, political or embarrassing records will be filed in
committee or the Clerk's records and transferred to the
Archives. Nor do we have researchers looking for political documents that might be used against a sitting Member of Congress. Political documentation is filed in the personal offices of the Congressmen, and those records remain in the legal custody of the Members.
Another factor in this matter of access is that Congress traditionally has published far more of its information than any other Government body, as a means of disseminating information about its work. The Congressional Record and its predecessors; the Congressional serial set, which is a collection of Committee reports and other documents; transcripts of Congressional hearings; and since 1979, the telecasting of the House floor proceedings, all illustrate the long and highly praised policy of the House of Representatives to make its record freely and widely
available to the American people. Only in the area of its
archival records does the House limit access to its record.
From the time that the first House records were transferred to the National Archives in 1946 until the
passage of House Resolution 288, 83rd Congress, in 1953 access was extremely difficult. Very few individuals or government agencies were permitted to view these records. In two instances, state libraries were fortunate enough to have House resolutions passed on their behalf to enable them to secure photostatic copies of nineteenth century documents of importance to their state histories. The American Historical Association and the National Archives urged the House to adopt a more liberal access policy toward its historic records. These institutions favored the passage of the 50, year rule, which was in keeping with many other Government agencies of that time. Their labors were rewarded with the passage of House Resolution 288, 83rd Congress. While the resolution clearly opened for research all records over 50 yers old, it permitted the Clerk some discretion on opening other House records.
Indeed our records show that from 1953 to at least 1971, the Clerk permitted access to House records regardless of their age. In fact the first researcher to request records of the House after the passage of House Resolution 288 in 1953 wanted to view records from 1930-1940; he was granted access. That same researcher or any other would be denied access to these same records if he asked to view them in 1986--33 years later.
From 1958 to 1971 the situation became at once less
structured and more open. In a 1958 meeting between the Clerk, then Ralph Roberts, Speaker Sam Rayburn and the