NARA Provided Critical Services During Government Shutdown
by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
The recent shutdown of the federal government was, and continues to be, a challenge for the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). From October 1 until October 17, NARA was "officially" closed with the exception of minimal functions to protect its holdings. A very small group of dedicated NARA staff, such as facility and security managers and financial and legal staff, worked to be certain that our buildings and holdings were secure and to deal with any problems that might arise. Our doors, like those at many other Federal agencies around the country, were locked because Congress had not appropriated necessary funds for most government agencies to operate beyond September 30. For us, the closure had an impact on researchers and museum visitors across the country. It was especially disheartening for us to turn away student groups and families from all over the nation. Many arrived on their once-in-alifetime trip to see what some have called America's "crown jewels"—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—in our main building in downtown Washington, DC.
Now, in the aftermath of the shutdown, I'm seeing something that makes me very proud of our staff, who are all back at work at our facilities around the country. They are rescheduling and rearranging events, dealing with a long list of requests for information, and working harder to eliminate the backlog of records that must be processed.
One of the things being delayed is the opening of the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery, which will house a new permanent exhibit, "Records of Rights." The exhibit showcases documents that illustrate how rights have been debated and expanded throughout American history. Because our building in downtown Washington had to be closed, museum staff and construction workers were unable to work on the exhibit. The opening is now scheduled for December 10, about a month later than planned.
Some components of the National Archives, however, continued to operate during the shutdown with essential personnel because of legal requirements, their funding source, or emergency situations. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, which holds the military files of Americans who served in uniform during the 20th century, responded to 46,000 requests for information from those files during the shutdown.
In St. Louis, four of our staff were "on call" to respond to high-priority requests for specific documents from veterans' files, such as those dealing with medical emergencies and burial benefits that were promised our men and women who served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
For example, NPRC responded to a request from the son of a Marine veteran who served in World War II. The father was in an Illinois hospice suffering from severe dementia, and the son needed his service record to prepare for the imminent funeral service. In another case, the Veterans Administration National Cemetery System asked for proof of military service for a Korean War Army veteran from Indiana so he could be buried with full military honors.
One unit that did not shut down was our Federal Records Centers Program (FRCP). At 17 locations around the country, the program provides records storage and services for other Federal agencies and delivers those records when the agencies need them. The FRCP charges the other agencies for the storage and services and does not require congressionally approved funding.
The Office of the Federal Register, which is part of NARA, was required by law to continue to publish the Federal Register. During the shutdown, the Federal Register published documents directly related to the government's role relating to threats to human life or the protection of property.
Examples of topics of documents that agencies could submit for publication during the shutdown include the constitutional duties of the President, food and drug inspections, air traffic control, responses to natural or man-made disasters, law enforcement, and supervision of financial markets.
Twelve Federal Register employees came into work every day to perform legal reviews, compiling and scheduling of exempt documents, and IT support services for exempted systems.
The shutdown was difficult for us, but planning for it well ahead of time paid off, and we were able to maintain essential functions where we were required to do so. And, it helps a lot to have a first-rate staff.