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.

Over the past two years, we have held briefings on the historical contexts of the following topics:

  • gun rights and gun regulations (March 2019)
  • how Congress reforms itself (February 2019)
  • refugee policy (October 2018)
  • federal agricultural policy (August 2018)
  • trade policy (July 2018)
  • infrastructure development (May 2018)
  • the Higher Education Act (February 2018)
  • automation and the workforce (November 2017)
  • Civil War monuments (October 2017)
  • civil-military relations (September 2017)
  • US-China relations (March 2017)
  • executive orders (February 2017).  

Each briefing has occurred at a point in time when Congress was actively grappling with the issue we addressed.  In some cases, this is because it was the subject of pending legislation (on agriculture, higher education, guns, etc.), in others because of controversial presidential actions (on refugees, trade policy, executive orders, etc.), and occasionally because of external events, such as the national debate about Civil War monuments that arose in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

All of our briefings are strictly non-partisan.  They are not meant to offer policy recommendations.  Instead, they are designed to provide policymakers with the historical perspectives that will, we hope, help them make more informed decisions.  We realize, of course, that members of Congress are too busy to pay much attention to our briefings (though we were thrilled when one Congressman took part in a session a year ago).  But we have seen a steady growth in the number of Congressional staffers who attend the briefings, and we have reason to believe that they do so because they and their office supervisors have found them helpful.  While demonstrating direct influence on decisions made in Congress is difficult, we feel confident that the briefings have enhanced an appreciation for history and the expertise of historians among policymakers and their staff. 

They have also enhanced historians’ appreciation of what is required to bring their expertise to the attention of those policymakers.  We have found that almost all the historians we invite to participate in our briefings accept our offer with alacrity.  They are civic-minded and eager to contribute their hard-won knowledge to members of Congress and their staffs.  But few of them have ever had an opportunity to do so, and as a consequence they are not always familiar with the conventions and constraints that govern expert testimony on the Hill, such as the need for brevity.  Still, they invariably respond to the distinctive challenges posed by this non-academic audience with enthusiasm.  In addition to their briefing presentations, we ask them to prepare one-page memos summarizing their main points, which are distributed at the briefings and posted on our website.  Historians’ responsiveness to our requests and eagerness to reach out to a Capitol Hill audience demonstrate their desire to contribute their expertise to policymakers and the public at large.

In a political environment that is increasingly shaped by the short memory of our social media circus, we have more need than ever for the long view that historians can offer.  Overcoming the historical amnesia that so often afflicts our policy debates isn’t easy, but the National History Center believes its congressional briefing program can help make a difference.    

Dane Kennedy

Director, National History Center

Originally published in The Federalist, a quarterly publication of the Society for History in the Federal Government, Number 62 (Summer 2019)