Meeting the Challenges of Influencing Policy
Everything has a history. More than a catchy phrase, that statement underlies the National History Center’s Congressional Briefings program: understanding the past improves policy making today. Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the center holds four briefings per year on Capitol Hill, bringing historical perspectives to issues before Congress. Briefings in 2015–16 have examined mass incarceration in the United States from the 19th century to the present, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its legacy, and congressional partisanship from the early republic to the present. We are now in the midst of planning for a spring briefing on the history of drug policy and drug epidemics. (For a full listing of the center’s briefings, blog recaps, and video links, see nationalhistorycenter.org/about/program-descriptions/congressional-briefings.)
In the American associational state, every issue also has an array of groups with a variety of perspectives to offer. With so many constituencies having perspectives on each issue, policy makers have many demands on their time. That means that we must put a great deal of effort into the spade work of connecting historians and policy makers.
Over the past year, the center’s briefings have enjoyed a broad reach. The average attendance at the center’s briefings is 35–40 people, usually including congressional staffers, staff at government agencies, journalists, historians, and members of the public. But the briefings reach a much larger audience, for they are typically filmed by C-SPAN or a center videographer. Educating members of the public about the historical dimensions of current events and showcasing historians’ participation in policy conversations are, we believe, important facets of the program.
While the center’s briefings are more successful at reaching members of the public than we had anticipated they would be, reaching our intended audience has been harder. Over the past year, we have been learning why. First, cultivating personal relationships with congressional staffers is critical, but it is time-consuming. Like other organizations, the NHC generally draws a half dozen staffers to each briefing. Yet we now recognize that one measure of the program’s success consists of the relationships historians forge with policy makers. Unlike Washington organizations that focus on a narrow range of issues that involve networking with a limited number of staffers, we aim to bring historical perspectives to many issues and seek to engage with staffers on many committees. Our network on the Hill consequently needs to be broader and stronger than that of most comparable organizations.
The briefings program has also prompted us to think differently about what sort of history matters in particular contexts. The congressional staffers we have gotten to know have asked us to provide historical perspective on topics we simply had not considered, such as the history of trade agreements or the impact of American legislation on foreign nations. They share our view that understanding the past will help them make better policy. They have had to educate us, however, about the sorts of historical questions that are relevant to their legislative work.
To meet these challenges, we have been building relationships with policy makers and asking them how historians can help. We have established Historians on the Hill, a group of congressional staffers with history degrees, to assist us in attracting their colleagues to briefings and, most importantly, advise us on topics and approaches that will be useful to them (see sidebar). Similarly, we are developing closer ties with historians who work for the Congressional Research Service. In response to lawmakers’ requests, they provide historical background on legislative issues to members of Congress and their staffs. We anticipate that they will teach us about fruitful ways to bring historical perspectives to policy makers.
A center-sponsored panel at the AHA annual meeting in Atlanta gave us insight about how to pursue our program. Organized by Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum and a member of the center’s Program Committee, the panel, titled “Pressing Issues: History Meets Public Policy Roundtable,” also featured Elena Aranova (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), Brian Balogh (Univ. of Virginia), Elena Conis (Emory Univ.), James Rodger Fleming (Colby Coll.), and Alan Kraut, a member of the center’s Program Committee (American Univ.). The panelists discussed how they have contributed to policy conversations. One conclusion was that it was each panelist’s knowledge of a particular topic that opened doors to the policy world. One of our tasks is to help other interested historians build similar connections. We therefore are planning to hold occasional, more intimate conversations between historians and staffers from our Historians on the Hill group around a focused issue.
Our efforts in the coming year will focus on expanding networks between historians and congressional staffers, learning about—and educating other historians about—the historical questions that matter to staffers’ work, and bringing more visibility to historians’ contributions to policy conversations. We welcome our colleagues’ collaboration in this endeavor.
An offshoot of the center’s Congressional Briefings program is the Mock Policy Briefing Program, which helps college and high school students discern the relevance of history to issues we confront today. Using the initiative’s guide (historians.org/mockpolicybooklet), educators and students craft and host briefings on the historical background of local, state, or national policy questions before an invited audience of local leaders. Temple University’s Jessica Roney piloted the program in a course on the history of Philadelphia as her students prepared to give a briefing on poverty in Philadelphia from 1775 to the present. Through the process, the students gained an understanding of long-term developments that shaped today’s economic conditions, inequality, responses to poverty, and more. They also honed their research skills, their ability to work collaboratively, their writing, and their oral presentation skills. (See the blog posts at blog.historians.org/category/national-history-center.) We believe the program is applicable not just to American history courses, but to almost every history course, since all address issues that carry contemporary implications or parallels. We are organizing several workshops, including one to be held at the 2017 AHA annual meeting in Denver, to teach educators how to implement the program. (To learn more and for an educators’ guide, see historians.org/nhc-mock-policy-briefing-program.)
Amanda Moniz is assistant director of the National History Center.
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