Monthly Archives: July 2019

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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