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November 7, 2023

Perspectives Section

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  • United States

With history in the crosshairs of the culture wars, it’s hard to imagine that historians would have an opportunity to give nonpartisan briefings to a hyperpartisan Congress. Yet they have done just that as participants in the Congressional Briefings program. Launched by the National History Center in 2005, the program has been supported by the Mellon Foundation since 2014. This funding permitted it to offer nearly 30 briefings in the six years prior to the pandemic-induced closure of Congress to visitors in 2020. The AHA has now revived the program; professional historians are once again bringing their expertise and insights to Capitol Hill.

The US Capitol on a partially cloudy day

As pandemic-related restrictions lapse, historians return to brief policymakers on Capitol Hill. Daniel Mennerich/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From 2014 to 2020, the Congressional Briefings program brought over 80 historians from more than 20 states to Capitol Hill. These historians provided insights into a wide range of contemporary issues, introducing audiences to the historical contexts of domestic legislative debates from tax reform to health care, agricultural policy, voting rights, higher education, and infrastructure. They examined the roots of a range of international issues, such as US-China relations, US-Iran relations, the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the role of oil in Middle East policy. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, they placed other public health crises in historical perspective (Ebola, opioids, and Zika), and, fittingly, the last briefing before the program’s suspension addressed the history of campaigns to develop vaccines for epidemic diseases. Congress itself was the subject of several briefings, with one on the problem of political partisanship and another on how Congress has reformed itself in the past. The destabilizing impact of the Trump presidency precipitated its share of briefings as well, inspiring sessions on the history of executive orders, civil-military relations, and “congressional oversight of presidential misconduct” (i.e., impeachment). Other hot-button issues that garnered the program’s attention included Confederate monuments and gun control.

Everything has a history, as the AHA’s signature slogan reminds us, and this most decidedly includes the issues that confront Congress. The Congressional Briefings program is premised on the conviction that our legislators and their staff will make more informed policy decisions if they have a better understanding of the historical circumstances that have given rise to these issues. Its target audience consists of the staffers who assist and advise the peoples’ representatives in Congress. It’s hardly a secret that much of Capitol Hill’s everyday business is conducted by these unsung and largely anonymous individuals. Consequently, it has been the program’s practice to reach out to staffers, especially those with history degrees and those who work on the committees that deal with the issues that are the focus of particular briefings. Often, a congressperson’s office will send interns who write reports about the sessions. In addition, the press and the public are welcome to attend, and C-SPAN films and broadcasts many of the briefings, ensuring that the historical perspectives they provide on contemporary issues reach an even wider audience.

Although it is often impossible to prove that a briefing exerted direct influence on congressional deliberations and decisions, the program spreads the message that history and historians have important insights to offer about the policy issues of the day. It is helpful for those making immigration policy to know, for example, that present concerns about immigration to the United States are nothing new, and that such concerns have centered on different immigrant communities over time, given rise to multiple regulatory measures, and led to a range of results and repercussions—some of them unintended. They also have value for the historians who take part in the briefings, and indeed for the discipline as a whole. With hostility toward historical knowledge reaching unprecedented heights in certain circles these days, it seems especially important for historians to make their presence felt in our nation’s capital. Demonstrating that historians can provide nonpartisan perspectives on the problems that confront our country is one of the most productive ways to counter the malicious misinformation that plagues our political culture.

Our legislators and their staff will make more informed policy decisions if they have a better understanding of the historical circumstances that have given rise to these issues.

Almost all the historians invited to participate in the Congressional Briefings program accept with alacrity. They are hungry to share their hard-won knowledge with policymakers and determined to dispel the distortions the polemicists have forged about their profession. Although few of them have ever had an opportunity to appear on Capitol Hill, they are quick to accommodate its distinctive demands, which include fairly brief presentations, accompanied by one-page memos that summarize their main points. If those who attend these briefings acquire a fuller understanding of the uses of history, historians in turn acquire greater appreciation of how to engage a policy-oriented audience. Both political parties benefit from the experience.

The issue of immigration along the US southwestern border was the subject of the first Congressional Briefing when the AHA relaunched the program at the end of July. Since immigration was the focus of one of the very first Congressional Briefings, and subsequent briefings have examined immigrant entrepreneurs and US refugee policy, it seems fitting that the relaunch of the program would start with a briefing on the history of immigration at the US southwestern border. The panelists were Mae Ngai (Columbia Univ.), Geraldo Cadava (Northwestern Univ.), and Nara Milanich (Barnard Coll.). Threading through their remarks was a common theme: the southwestern border may mark the territorial boundary between the United States and Mexico, but it is also a site of continuous movement of goods, cultures, and peoples between the two countries. As Ngai observed, the border had never been entirely impermeable or impregnable.

Ngai opened the session with an overview of US immigration policy, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and continuing through the Immigration Quota Act of 1924, the Immigration Reform Acts of 1965 and 1986, and beyond. At present, the United States limits admission to approximately 26,500 immigrants per country per year, not much more than the cap of 20,000 set in 1960. Ngai pointed out that restrictions on legal immigration have led time and again to illegal immigration, and authorities have never found an effective way to prevent it. Today there are some 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States.

The southwestern border is much more than a major conduit for legal and illegal immigration, as Cadava made clear. It is also the main point of passage for goods between the United States and Mexico, which is one of America’s biggest trading partners. In addition, plenty of people cross the border every day to shop and go to school. Cross-border cooperation between the two countries is critical to water management, disease prevention, and other matters that transcend political boundaries. And for local Indigenous communities, the border is largely irrelevant and ignored.

For policymakers and the public, however, the southwestern border has become the principal flash point for partisan bickering. Who are the migrants at the center of these debates? Milanich pointed out that in the past, they were mostly adult men from Mexico seeking employment in the United States. Now they consist largely of families fleeing violence in Central America, with a substantial minority coming from more distant lands, often driven by climate change. Though the scale of this influx is less than it was in the recent past, the increased proportion of vulnerable women and children among the migrants who struggle to cross the border has helped to give greater public visibility and social valence to the problem.

Overcoming the historical amnesia and social media manipulations that so often afflict our policy debates isn’t easy, but the Congressional Briefings program is designed to make a difference. By the time this article appears in print, a second briefing will have been held on the history of another contentious issue, US-China relations. Other sessions are being planned in the coming months on the history of US housing policy, the use of sanctions as an instrument of foreign policy, and historical perspectives on artificial intelligence. We are always on the lookout for timely topics—and historians qualified to discuss them—so please don’t hesitate to send the AHA your suggestions.

Dane Kennedy is a professor emeritus at George Washington University and was director of the National History Center from 2014 to 2020.

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