Publication Date

April 1, 2012

Perspectives Section



Public History

After a hiatus of nearly three years, the National History Center plans to revive its Congressional Briefings series later this spring with a session on space exploration and the U.S. space program, and to continue the briefings on a quarterly basis.

The Congressional Briefings series aims to provide the historical context of issues currently facing the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Designed especially for congressional staff, but open also to members of Congress and the public, the briefings facilitate useful interaction between historians with expertise in a particular policy area and those who help craft legislation in that area. The presentations are meant to be entirely nonpartisan and strive to provide objective historical background from multiple perspectives.

The Center's staff is currently in discussion with historians from the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as the staff members of the congressional committees that oversee the space program, in an effort to develop a briefing that will be particularly useful to the Congress at this crucial juncture in the history of space exploration.

As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's becoming the first American to orbit the earth, it has recently said farewell to the 30-year shuttle program that followed NASA's successful effort in the 1960s to put humans on the moon. President George W. Bush's plans for human travel back to the moon and to Mars, announced in 2004, came to naught as the United States struggled to fight two wars and cope with domestic economic crises. President Barack Obama has suggested extending the life of the international space station and using the private sector to create vehicles to transport astronauts to and from it.

One of the earliest initiatives of the National History Center, the briefings began in April 2005 with a session on the politics of congressional reform, presented by Julian E. Zelizer of Princeton University. The following month, Edward Berkowitz of George Washington University and Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University spoke on the Social Security Administration and the policy controversy that attended its creation. Maris Vinovskis of the University of Michigan ended the year with a talk on compensatory education at the K–12 level with a discussion ranging from "A Nation at Risk," the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, to "No Child Left Behind," the George W. Bush administration's effort to improve student performance by promulgating standards.

In 2006, former AHA presidents Eric Foner of Columbia University and the late John Hope Franklin of Duke University discussed the federal role in race relations, from post-Civil War Reconstruction to the civil rights movement, including such legislation as the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Christine Kim of Georgetown Universityexamined the United States' historical relationship with Korea. In 2007, James Rodger Fleming of Colby College discussed the historical antecedents of the current debates on climate change.

The election year 2008 saw another past president of the AHA, Civil War authority James M. McPherson of Princeton University, address Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the war and its short- and long-term consequences. John O. Voll of Georgetown University spoke on the history of radical Islam before and after 9/11. The most recent briefing took place in May 2009, when Alan Brinkley of Columbia University discussed the Great Depression and the actions the federal government took to stem its effects and stimulate recovery.

The Congressional Briefings went into hibernation, as it were, as they could not be sustained in the intensely partisan atmosphere that engulfed Capitol Hill after the 2008 elections. Both the need for the briefings and the conditions for their revival seem to have come together now, and the National History Center is happy to relaunch the series.

Readers interested in learning more about the past briefings may wish to see the videorecordings of the briefings given by Brinkley, Voll, McPherson, and Fleming, which are available on the National History Center web site. An illustrated audio recording of Christine Kim's presentation is also available there.

As the series gets underway again, the National History Center will be particularly interested in involving the national capital region's large number of public historians in the briefings. The Center also extends a special welcome to policy analysts from think tanks, university faculty, and scholars from other venues outside Congress itself, as well as graduate students (especially those visiting Washington for research), who are all invited to attend the briefings.

Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.

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