Publication Date

March 1, 2015


One of the signature initiatives of the National History Center of the American Historical Association is its Congressional Briefing program. As reported in the November 2014 issue of Perspectives on History, the center received a $130,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund its nonpartisan briefings for five years. This article provides an update on the program, highlighting the work we do to bring historians into conversation with the legislative and policy communities, and describes the insights we have gained from our efforts.

Since the grant began, the center has held two briefings. The first, on Ebola and the African public health crisis, took place in November. Randall Packard of Johns Hopkins University, Julie Livingston of New York University and Rutgers University, and Gregg Mitman of the University of Wisconsin explored the history of public health efforts in Africa and the efforts’ consistent failures. The global health community, they explained, has spent billions on programs targeting specific diseases, but has neglected to invest in basic health infrastructures. One result of these spending decisions has been the outbreak of epidemics such as Ebola.

In late January, the center held its next briefing, on the Ukraine conflict, with presentations by Timothy Snyder of Yale University and Mark Von Hagen of Arizona State University. Surveying Ukraine’s relationship with Russia throughout the 20th century, Von Hagen explained that Ukraine gained and sought to protect its independence from Russia in 1918 and again in 1991. In his remarks, Snyder examined the historical arguments made by Russia during the current crisis. Russia has used historical myths, he explained, to lay claim to Ukraine. Too often uninformed about the region’s past, he added, we fall victim to Russia’s propaganda.

The center has two briefings in the works for coming months. With tax reform on the congressional agenda, we plan to hold a briefing on the history of business tax reform in the spring. The tentative title of the briefing is “American Families, Global Competition, and Comprehensive Tax Reform in Historical Perspective.” In light of current debates about voter access and voter fraud, we are also putting together a briefing on the Voting Rights Act, passed 50 years ago this year.

By the end of the first year of the grant, the center will have held one briefing in each of four broad areas of concern to the policy community: science/technology (Ebola and the African public health crisis); foreign policy/military/intelligence (the Ukraine conflict); domestic policy (tax reform); and Congress and the electoral process (the Voting Rights Act). Earlier in 2014, before the grant began, we also held briefings on the history of legislative oversight of the intelligence community and, in collaboration with the German Historical Institute, on immigrant entrepreneurship in historical perspective.

In addition to organizing these quarterly events, we are working to help expand the history profession’s role in public conversations by building our networks on Capitol Hill. Toward that end, Dane Kennedy and I have been meeting with congressional staffers and informing them of our program to bring the expertise of historians to bear on the issues they confront. To date, we have met with staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee; the Senate Judiciary Committee; and the Joint Committee on Taxation, as well as individual members of Congress. Beyond introducing the center and our briefings program to staffers, the goal of these meetings is twofold. First and most pragmatically, we seek assistance with the logistics of organizing briefings and publicizing the events to staffers. Democratic and Republican staffers have generously helped with booking rooms and handling other details. (And, contrary to depictions of deep partisanship in Washington, they willingly introduce us to colleagues across the aisle.) Beside logistics, a major purpose of these meetings is to work with staffers to craft briefings that are meaningful both to them and to historians. Typically, after we have decided on a topic we want to address, we reach out to several historians who are specialists in the topic, inviting them to participate in the briefing and identify the issues it will cover. We then share our plans with the committee of jurisdiction for the policy areas we are addressing, and we solicit staff members’ input about the historical questions they would like answers to. In this process of developing the briefing’s content, the center has a valuable role to play in mediating between the history profession and our intended audience.

Staffers need no convincing that history matters. Well-read and well-informed, they do not have to be persuaded that understanding the historical background to the issues they work on is worthwhile. For their parts, historians are as eager to be part of public conversations as their counterparts in other disciplines are. Yet there can be a mismatch between the expectations of staffers and of members of our profession about what sort of history matters, and why it matters. Historians, as readers of Perspectives know, are trained to think about the broad context behind developments in their areas of expertise, but are understandably reluctant to speak on topics outside their subfields. Staffers, for their part, have concerns that are both broader—many recent developments are important to them—and more focused—questions about legislative dimensions of the topic are naturally a priority. To increase exchange between historians and policy makers, we believe one of our tasks is to help each side understand the other’s perspective on what sort of history matters to the other. These discussions also provide opportunities for the congressional staffers and the historians participating in the briefings to develop ongoing relationships. Working to forge connections between members of our profession and the policy-making community is a key facet of the center’s mission.

The briefings themselves provide opportunities for building these networks. We have been pleased with the turnout at the events. Besides congressional staffers, we attract staff from other government agencies, nonprofit institutions, foreign institutions, and museums, along with sizable contingents of historians. A range of institutions is represented at each briefing, and historians’ perspectives become part of the discussions in various networks within the policy community.

From our vantage point, it is perhaps easy to say that historians should be and are a proper part of policy discussions. An anecdote from Mark Von Hagen reminded us that others may not share our perspective. Why are you going to Washington to brief congressional staffers? Von Hagen’s students asked him. What does a historian have to bring to public discussions? We hope that educators will help us answer that question by using some of our briefings videos and other resources with their students.

is assistant director of the National History Center.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.