Scattered throughout the federal bureaucracy are several hundred officials who aren't expected to worry what their respective agencies are doing today or tomorrow.
Their job, under Civil Service classification 170, is to document the history of their agencies, to look back and determine what facts need to be available for agency decision makers and the public.
"While we are few in numbers, our work is ever so important for the political decision makers," said Wayne Rasmussen, chief historian of the Agriculture Department and president of the Society for History in the Federal Government. "As has been said before, people can avoid future mistakes if they can learn from the past."
The 450-member society meets once a year, bringing together government historians for seminars and discussions about their work. In addition, it publishes a bimonthly newsletter, "The Federalist."
"We have to deal in facts, and facts alone," said Rasmussen, one of the founders of the society. He said the group helps members learn how to deal with requests for information from senior officials.
"This has helped all of us have greater freedom to deal with controversy and with problems that often have a political base," he said.
David K. Allison, historian of the David Taylor Naval Ship Research Development Center and another of the society's founders, said that by working together, the historians can "better fight off shortsighted budget cuts that will have a long-range damage to our history programs."
Several society members from the Defense Department said the society had helped them make a case for their jobs when budgets were being trimmed. Said one official, who works at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, "We are in a situation were we're the first that could go. It shouldn't be that way."
Allison said the society was created because other professional organizations -- the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians -- "weren't meeting the needs" of federal historians. Allison said the other groups were made up primarily of history professors -- people who generally don't have the same interest in the kinds of immediate problems that confront the historian working for the federal government.
The seven-year-old organization is compiling a directory of federal historical programs and a telephone book of government historians. It has also established a task force to guide agencies' plans for commemorating the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987.
"The sharing of information is the essential ingredient to being a good historian," Rasmussen said. "We deal with what has been done, pulling it together so the agency secretary or another official can use the information."
As an example, he said an assistant secretary had asked him to pull together a history of the Commodity Credit Corp., explaining how it began and evolved.
Rasmussen said the historian is more removed from politics than is a public affairs office, which has to publicize information based on the administration's priorities.
That "step removed" may apply to the individual historians but not always to the society. Last year, Allison said, the group offered its views on why the National Archives and Records Service should be separated from the General Services Administration. The legislation passed, and the Archives became independent April 1.