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Archaeopolitics: Changing Times

Judith A. Bense

As the outgoing chair of the Government Affairs Committee (GAC), I would like to highlight some of the significant events that have occurred in Washington politics and SAA in the past five years.

A Little History

Prior to 1994, SAA lobbying on Capitol Hill was done part time by a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that carried out the policies set by the SAA Board of Directors with the GAC's guidance. Grass-roots lobbying was performed by the Committee of Public Archaeology (COPA), a network of volunteer SAA members in each state. Realizing the importance of lobbying and a presence in Washington, the Board decided in the early 1990s to hire a full-time Washington lobbyist and attorney and establish the Government Affairs Program. Donald Craib was hired and continues to manage that program. In 1994, I became the committee chair after Dean Snow and developed a strong partnership with Craib.

The Republican Revolution

In November 1994, the Republicans won their first majority in Congress in decades, ousting our long-time political allies and placing top priority on reducing the national debt and inflation. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation was zeroed out, the National Endowment for the Humanities was under the budget-cutting hatchet, and everywhere there was political uncertainty in archaeology. This was a sobering "wake-up call" on the importance of Washington politics to archaeology, and the membership called for immediate action.

It was quickly realized that SAA was the only archaeology organization in the country with a permanent presence and lobbyist in Washington, and we took the lead in dealing with the "Republican Revolution." Alliances with other archaeology organizations, especially the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), were made. The then-SAA president, Bill Lipe, one very politically savvy archaeologist, made an unimaginable number of trips from his home base of Pullman, Washington, to Washington, D.C., to hit Capitol Hill with Craib and educate the new congressional leadership and their staff about archaeology and the serious impact of the planned cuts to our country's heritage. A spring lobbying week was developed by Craib which briefed the GAC chair and presidents of the archaeology organizations at seminars with "Washington insiders" and sent these archaeologists on a Capitol Hill mission similar to Lipe's. These sessions formed critical alliances between former competing organizations. We all realized that we are much more effective as partners for our shared interest in archaeology.


Quickly, the role of the GAC changed from a policy-shaping entity to an action committee. It was restructured to be "leaner and meaner" by making it smaller and more representative of professional archaeologists. The GAC is now made up of members with political experience and the facilities for quick communication who are comfortable with politicians and staffers alike. A restructured COPA became the Government Affairs Network State Representatives (GANSR). GANSR consists of one politically aware member in each state who keeps archaeologists in his/her state informed of political activity around archaeology, and who mobilizes colleagues if swift action on a particular issue is required.

At the Annual Meeting, a regular forum sponsored by the GAC on "Washington Politics and Archaeology" was initiated to keep the membership informed about the politics of archaeology by bringing key people from inside and outside archaeology to give synopsis of issues of concern and to provide an opportunity for discussion. U.S. Rep. Phil English (R.-Pa.) participated in the 1997 GAC-sponsored forum in Nashville and received the Public Service Award for his efforts in saving the Advisory Council at a critical moment.

We've Come a Long Way

Through these changing times, SAA has emerged as the political leader in archaeology in this country, largely through the efforts of the Government Affairs Program. The Board of Directors' vision in the early 1990s has paid off. The Advisory Council was saved, NEH is still in business, and SAA is recognized as a major player on Capitol Hill.

I have had a very educational and interesting time as chair of the Government Affairs Committee through the 104th and 105th Congresses, and I am sure that incoming chair Brona Simon of Massachusetts will serve us all well. She knows her way around politics and is a natural on Capitol Hill. We can all sleep much better knowing the Government Affairs Program is watching Congress from inside the Beltway for all of us out in the trenches.

Judith A. Bense is chair of the Government Affairs Committee and director of the Archeology Institute at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.

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