The National History Center of the American Historical Association provides a venue in the nation's capital for all who care about the human past to make history an essential part of public conversations about current events and the shared futures of the United States and the wider world.

Bringing History to Capitol Hill

By Dane Kennedy

When’s the last time you heard a historian give expert testimony to Congress?  Plenty of economists, political scientists, and other experts do so, but historians—not so much.  Yet it seems self-evident that our legislators would benefit from historical perspectives on the problems they face.  It would help them to know, for example, how those problems arose and whether previous measures eased or exacerbated them.  In short, legislators can learn from the past.

National History Center congressional briefing on the history of U.S. gun rights and regulations, March 8, 2019. Photo © Bruce Guthrie

This is the reason the National History Center launched its congressional briefing program.  It believes that Congressional policy-makers benefit from the professional expertise of historians.  The early briefings were unfunded and irregular, but participants included renowned historians like John Hope Franklin and Eric Foner.  In 2014, the Center received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to hold four briefings per year.  A renewal of the grant a year and a half ago has allowed us to expand the program to six briefings a year.

How do the briefings work?  First, we identify a topic that is timely and relevant to the concerns of Congress.  Then we find two or three historians who are specialists in the history of the topic and ask them to work together on a briefing presentation.  Once the briefing date is set, we engage in extensive outreach to Congressional staffers, especially those who serve on relevant committees: they are our target audience.  We hold the briefings in a House meeting room, booked for us by the staff of a Congressman who shares our belief in the importance of history.  The briefing lasts an hour, with our historians giving formal remarks for the first 30 minutes, followed by another half hour of questions and answers.  C-SPAN regularly films and broadcasts the briefings, ensuring they reach a wider audience.

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Policy and History in York, PA: College Students Brief Local Leaders

Drawing upon the model of the Congressional Briefing series and some of the examples from the History and Policy Education Program, Corey M. Brooks, Associate Professor of History at York College of Pennsylvania, developed a new course,  “Policy and History in York” for the Spring 2019 semester. His full reflections can be found here.

On a May night in downtown York, Pennsylvania, two blocks from city hall, I sat quietly as seven of my York College undergraduates expounded to politicians and community leaders on the histories of poverty in our community and of policy responses that had in years past attempted (and often failed) to meaningfully alleviate this deep-rooted problem.   Speaking for 90 minutes on subtopics they had selected themselves and researched over the course of a semester, these students together unfolded several key facets of the history of poverty policy in York.   The audience responded with rapt attention, as student research informed and energized attendees, including the city’s mayor, the city council president, the local constituent services director for the area’s U. S. Representative, and the CEO of York County’s official Community Action Agency.   After concluding their prepared remarks, students handled difficult, thought-provoking audience questions with comfort and skill.  Each student stood a little taller later that night as they mingled with local policymakers and college faculty.  In the process, they celebrated their hard work—work that might tangibly contribute to a community in which they now felt increasingly invested.

Welcome to York sign (Public domain)

The group had traveled quite a distance from our first class meeting in January.  At the outset, the students had little idea where they would direct their energies and widely varying experiences with history research, policy analysis, and local community engagement.  Guiding these students from that starting point to the final briefing event was perhaps the most demanding and most fulfilling teaching experience of my nine years at York College of Pennsylvania.  In this new “Policy and History in York” course, modeled on the National History Center’s congressional briefings, I challenged students to conduct the research necessary to become experts on the local history of policies that concern our community.  They then would have to work as a team to build and present a shared briefing for local decision makers.

I conceived of this course for two main reasons. The first was in response to the all too ubiquitous questioning, including (especially) in higher education itself, of the relevance of historical research.  Here was a course in which students would show peers, faculty, and the broader community how historical research could be brought to bear to contextualize current challenges.

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U.S. Gun Rights and Regulations

At our most recent Congressional Briefing in March, Saul Cornell (Fordham) and Darrell A. H. Miller (Duke) discussed the history of gun legislation and jurisprudence in a panel moderated by Karin Wulf (William & Mary). Past efforts at regulation since the revolutionary period speak to present and future efforts to legislate and rule legally on interpretations of the Second Amendment.

https://www.c-span.org/video/?458647-1/us-gun-rights-regulations

A video recording of the briefing can be found here, in C-SPAN’s video library.

A briefing summary, with bios of the panelists, is available here.