The National History Center’s Congressional Briefings are designed to provide historical context and perspective on current issues for policy makers and members of their staff. The speakers reflect upon historical events and developments that have influenced the evolution of current policies and provide knowledge pertinent to the consideration of policy alternatives.
Cokie Roberts, the famed journalist, historian, and National History Center board member, has died. Much admired for her balanced political commentary and engaged historical studies of America’s ‘founding women,’ her passing is a loss for us all.
At our first summer Congressional Briefing at the end of June, Beatrix Hoffman (Northern Illinois University) and Nancy Tomes (Stony Brook University) traced the history of health care and insurance in the U.S. in light of present debates. Moderated by Alan Kraut (American University), the briefing reviewed the ways that the federal government has considered and intervened in the provision of health care and insurance since the early 20th century; how these systems have developed with the help of federal funding; and what congressional legislators can do in the present and near future about the broader health care system in the US.
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.
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.