Spurred by a special task force report that suggested major changes in the way the National Archives operates, Congress is considering legislation that would give the agency its independence from the General Services Administration.
While the Reagan administration and GSA chief Gerald P. Carmen have not taken a position on the move, it has been supported quietly by the head of the Archives, historian Robert M. Warner.
The task force report last May sought to compare the Archives' operations with those of the quasi-governmental Smithsonian Institution and such agencies as the Census Bureau, National Gallery of Art and the Energy Information Administration. While the report stopped short of advocating independence, it recommended seven major changes in Archives operations. They included:
* Having the president appoint the archivist to a six-year term that could be renewed once, or requiring the GSA administrator to fill the post from a list of professionally qualified candidates.
* Allowing the Archives to accept private funding so it could expand its outreach programs for the public.
* Creating a board to advise the Archives and help its fund raising. The panel would be made up of representatives of all three branches of government, professional organizations, the public and all living former presidents, whose libraries the Archives maintains.
* Giving the Archives statutory authority over government records, preservation of documents, its reference system and its rule making.
"There is a lot of room to operate better if the Archives had some of the tools that the Smithsonian does," said Warner, who organized the task force. "We have to consider those options."
At a Senate Governmental Operations Committee hearing Friday, former U.S. Archivist James B. Rhodes was the latest professional to join the growing list of those seeking a change in the current system. Rhodes said the Archives needed to be protected from the "tragic and ill-conceived" interference of Carmen and previous GSA administrators.
The notion of making the Archives an independent agency has been discusssed for about a quarter of a century. But it gained new support a decade ago, when then-GSA chief Arthur F. Sampson signed an agreement with President Nixon, giving him unprecedented control over his papers and tapes after he left office. Sampson's decision, made without consulting Archives employes, was eventually overturned by Congress.
Last year, Carmen also rankled Archives staffers when he tried to move a high-level Archives employe to another part of the GSA. Carmen argued that Senior Executive Service skills could be transferred to wherever agency managers thought they were needed. Instead, the employe, an eight-year veteran of the Archives who had been in charge of public programs and exhibits, quit.
Before the committee, Rhodes complained that Carmen had abolished the jobs of regional archivists and transferred control over the records and information management division to another part of the GSA. Administrators, he said, have "sometimes failed or refused to respect the nonpartisan professional objectives of the Archives . . . often to the great detriment of Archives programs and the preservation of the nation's documentary heritage." Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.), the sponsor of the bill to separate the agencies, said, "There's no way you can do history cheap."
"The Archives have been inadequately treated in the appropriations process as is seen by their declining budget in the Reagan administration," Eagleton said. He noted that the Archives received $88 million during the Carter administration, but the Reagan administration recommended only $75 million in its first budget. "We jacked that up to $79 million," Eagleton told Carmen, "not you."
Carmen said that the Archives' budgets "are worked out" with professionals at that agency.
New York State Archivist Larry J. Hackman testified that under the current system, the Archivist isn't free to speak out on archival issues.
"There will be no acceptable archives and records program," he said, if "its mission is subject to wide swings in priorities and methods resulting from the views of successive administrators of GSA and their inevitably new management teams."
Warner said in a recent interview that although he is given a relatively free rein in running his operation, he is restricted by the policies that shape GSA's budget. Warner said he kept the professional management team that was in place when he joined the Archives during the Carter administration. A year after Carmen arrived, the administrator reassigned a GSA staffer to a high-level job at the Archives.