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Whiplash – back to Washington, D.C.

Whiplash — going from Midwinter in Atlanta to arriving back in my office in Washington, D.C. and facing a week of policy onslaught. As with much of the nation, I find it hard to know where to begin. Of course, my starting point is always the ALA mission, the Library Bill of Rights and the strategic directions of the Association, ably highlighted in yesterday’s statement from ALA President Julie Todaro. Then, I put on my political hat to see what can be done.

xray image of driver with whiplash
Whiplash – moving from ALA Midwinter Conference back to the policy onslaught in D.C.

Let me begin where Larra Clark, Krista Cox and Kara Malenfant left off in their post on net neutrality earlier this month. One development in the past week was the appointment of Ajit Pai as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As Larra and company explained, we are gearing up for challenges on the net neutrality front. However, Chairman Pai, a native of Parsons, Kansas, also is a proponent of broadband access (especially rural areas) and closing the digital divide. He calls this his “Digital Empowerment Agenda.” Clearly, there is reason to talk with him and his staff, and we are now formulating the best approach to doing just that.

Also, this past week, there was press speculation about the futures of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Now there isn’t yet a legislative or White House budget proposal to eliminate these agencies, but such action was recommended in a 2016 report by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has influence with the Trump Administration.

So, there is no specific threat today. Are we concerned? Yes. Things can move quickly, and we need to be prepared. Now is the time to do spade work. For libraries and the communities we serve, this means gathering evidence about the impact and value of national programs and how they benefit libraries and our communities. We need compelling stories of how libraries contribute to national missions such as economic advancement, services to veterans and educational opportunity.

Yes, you have heard us ask for these stories hundreds of times before, but now we need you to answer the call. When we meet or communicate with Members or staff in Congress, senior Administration officials, or other decision makers, we need stories that will resonate with them (more detail about the desired characteristics of these stories and those we wish to influence in a forthcoming blog post by Kevin Maher).

Sanctuary cities—localities that limit cooperation with immigration-related agencies—also have come to the fore as a policy issue. Among other things, President Trump’s executive order explores the possibility that federal funding could be reduced or terminated for cities found to be deficient in this cooperation. Questions have arisen regarding the legality of this order, as well as the scope—does it implicate E-rate discounts, Institute of Museum and Library Services grants, NEH grants, National Science Foundation or National Library of Medicine grants? At this moment, nobody has the answers, but along with our allies, we will engage and fight the policy as we can.

There is increasing discussion about the Congressional Review Act and how it might be employed to reverse regulations already in place from the Obama Administration (such as the net neutrality order of the FCC or regulations from the Department of Labor related to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act). There are also new proposals for challenging regulatory actions, such as the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act (passed in the House), which would limit the ability of executive-branch agencies to adopt new regulations without congressional approval. We are engaged with our allies in Washington on how to proceed.

There is much more I could say, but I must stop now. Really, I could spend all my time writing blog posts about problems and possible directions to take, given that the waterfront of challenges is broadening by the hour or, rather, by the tweet or executive order. The Washington Office is committed to informing and engaging our diverse membership, as well as taking action with allies to advance shared policy priorities. The ALA and libraries have a big mission, so we must be strategic in our work. Where do we need to spend our time and attention at a given time? When is behind-the-scenes work most important? When is grassroots action most beneficial? When is more background research needed? I dare say that our plate will be overflowing for the foreseeable future.

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Alan Inouye

Alan S. Inouye is the director of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy. Previously, he was the coordinator of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President and a study director at the National Academy of Sciences. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

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