Historicizing Violence Against Members of Congress


Yale historian Joanne Freeman reminds us that violence against members of Congress has a long history in the United States.  In a recent op-ed at The Washington Post, Freeman takes us back to the contentious decades before the Civil War.

Here is a taste:

When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and four others were shot during baseball practice at a park in Alexandria, Va., on Wednesday morning, it was the third incident of violence involving legislators in recent weeks, and by far the most extreme. On May 24 in Montana, only hours before being elected to the House, Greg Gianforte “body-slammed” Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs for asking a question about health-care policy. Five days later, during an immigration policy protest in the Texas House, Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) caused a scuffle when he confronted Latino members of the chamber about protesters in the gallery.

This is hardly politics as normal in America. But it’s not unprecedented. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, legislative violence was far more common. State legislatures and Congress sporadically erupted into violence. Lawmakers assaulted each other during debate — in one case in Arkansas, resulting in a death. And occasionally, aggrieved citizens assaulted lawmakers.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Congress was ground zero for legislative violence because it was the epicenter of the nation’s fraught slavery debate. In those two decades alone, there were scores of violent incidents in the House and Senate, including shoving matches, fistfights, guns and knives drawn, canings and the occasional mass brawl.

Read the entire piece here.

What the GOP in the House Did Yesterday

Just so we are clear, the American Health Care Act:

  • Takes health insurance away from at least 24 million Americans; that was the number the CBO estimated for a previous version of the bill, and the number for this one is probably higher.
  • Revokes the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, which provided no-cost health coverage to millions of low-income Americans.
  • Turns Medicaid into a block grant, enabling states to kick otherwise-eligible people off their coverage and cut benefits if they so choose.
  • Slashes Medicaid overall by $880 billion over 10 years.
  • Removes the subsidies that the ACA provided to help middle-income people afford health insurance, replacing them with far more meager tax credits pegged not to people’s income but to their age. Poorer people would get less than they do now, while richer people would get more; even Bill Gates would get a tax credit.
  • Allows insurers to charge dramatically higher premiums to older patients. If you want a reliable company that can give you car insurance and many others visit One Sure Insurance for more info.
  • Allows insurers to impose yearly and lifetime caps on coverage, which were outlawed by the ACA. This also, it was revealed today, may threaten the coverage of the majority of non-elderly Americans who get insurance through their employers.
  • Allows states to seek waivers from the ACA’s requirement that insurance plans include essential benefits for things such as emergency services, hospitalization, mental health care, preventive care, maternity care, and substance abuse treatment.
  • Provides hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts for families making over $250,000 a year.
  • Produces higher deductibles for patients.
  • Allows states to try to waive the ACA’s requirement that insurers must charge people the same rates regardless of their medical history. This effectively eviscerates the ban on denials for preexisting conditions, since insurers could charge you exorbitant premiums if you have a preexisting condition, effectively denying you coverage.
  • Shunts those with preexisting conditions into high-risk pools, which are absolutely the worst way to cover those patients; experience with them on the state level proves that they wind up underfunded, charge enormous premiums, provide inadequate benefits and can’t cover the population they’re meant for. Multiple analyses have shown that the money the bill provides for high-risk pools is laughably inadequate, which will inevitably leave huge numbers of the most vulnerable Americans without the ability to get insurance.
  • Brings back medical underwriting, meaning that just like in the bad old days, when you apply for insurance you’ll have to document every condition or ailment you’ve ever had.

This is from Paul Waldman’s piece in The Washington Post.  He wants to hold the GOP accountable.

After the bill passed, you can hear congressmen on the floor singing this:

Slacktivist is also ready for a fight.

How Do You Implement a New Government When Nobody Shows Up to Govern?

Federal HallAt first glance you may have thought that this post had something to do with the habits of some of our current members of Congress.  Nope.  The title of the post is referencing the first meeting of the United States Congress in 1789.

Here is a taste of Erick Trickey‘s piece at Smithsonian.com:

Cannons fired 11 shots at sunrise, one for each state that had ratified the Constitution. At noon, they fired again, to announce the opening of Congress. It was March 4, 1789, and a new federal government had dawned. But awkwardly, no one was ready. Only eight senators and 13 representatives showed up at New York’s newly renovated Federal Hall for the festivities. Where was everyone?

The excuses were various: The members of the new government were sick, late, slowed by weather, not even elected yet. Others simply didn’t bother to attend. The new republic had a new congress—but it was off to an embarrassing start.

Pennsylvania senator Robert Morris was just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, writing to his wife that “the wind blew so hard, the Evening so dark & Fogg so Thick,” he didn’t dare get on a boat. Congressman Theodorick Bland of Virginia was still in his home state, “shipwrecked & landwrecked, mired, fatigued with walking.” New York’s legislature, split between Federalists and Antifederalists, hadn’t yet chosen its U.S. senators.

Even new congressman James Madison, who had done so much to draft the new Constitution and argue for its ratification, got to New York late. Fresh off a victory over his friend James Monroe in Virginia’s congressional election, he’d stopped by Mount Vernon on the way north to help George Washington draft his inaugural address. Then he got caught on muddy roads.

Read the entire piece here.

Urge Congress to Support a Bill That Will Bring Improved K-12 Instruction in History

Here are the details from the Organization of American Historians. If you care about funding for history education, contact your representative as soon as possible.  I just contacted mine.
On December 2, the House of Representatives is scheduled to consider the conference report to S. 1177, the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” The bill reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) for the next four years and replaces the much maligned No Child Left Behind Act. Most importantly the legislation includes multiple sources of funding to support improved instruction in K-12 history, civics, geography and economics.
The Organization of American Historians (OAH) urgently needs you to contact your Member of the House of Representatives and urge him or her to support the conference report that includes key provisions that benefit history and civics education. Click here for a link that allows you to send an email directly to your Member of the House of Representatives and urge him or her to support the conference report that includes key provisions that benefit history and civics education.
The House is voting first on S. 1177, the “Every Student Succeeds Act.” While the Senate is likely to pass the bill, as you know in recent months the House has gone through a chaotic fight over its leadership. Even though the bill cleared the House-Senate conference committee by an overwhelming bi-partisan majority of 38-1, its passage by the House is by no means a foregone conclusion. Politics unrelated to the underlying merits of the bill may still derail it. So it is vital that all representatives, Republicans and Democrats, receive the message from their constituents that the education of our nation’s K-12 students is vitally important and a non-partisan issue.
OAH limits our legislative “action alerts” to situations and issues that are vital to the interests of our constituents. We cannot overstress the importance of this effort! Congress has not reauthorized the ESEA in 15 years so this legislation is our only opportunity to get funding restored for K-12 history and civics education.
The bill is expected to go to the House floor on December 2. Time is of the essence so call or email today!
How to Contact Your Representative
Please call or email your House member’s office and urge them to support restoring federal funding for history and civics education. To contact your representative, you can use one of these two options. No matter which means of communication you choose, please personalize your message as to your background or interest in history. If you are employed in the field, especially as a K-12 teacher, mention the institution where you work in your congressional district.
  1. Make a phone call. All Members of Congress can be reached through the U.S. Capitol switchboard at (202)224-3121. If you feel comfortable doing so, a personal phone call is preferable to an email.If you are not sure who your Representative is you can follow this link to the House’s website and enter your zip code which will provide a link to your House member’s website: http://www.house.gov/
  2. Send an email. The National Coalition of History (of which the OAH is a member) is working with the National Humanities Alliance which has prepared a one-step link to your House member (click here). You simply enter your address and the system identifies your representative. We’ve provided an email template that can be edited to personalize your message. The message not only goes to your House member’s email, but their Twitter account and Facebook page as well.

Historians (and Students of History) Influencing Public Policy on Capitol Hill and Beyond

Are you familiar with the National History Center‘s “Congressional Briefings” program?

The Center’s Congressional Briefings program aims to provide members of Congress and their staff with the historical background needed to understand the context of current legislative concerns.  It does so by bringing leading historians to Capitol Hill to provide non-partisan briefings on past events and policies that shape the issues facing Congress today.

In the last year, the Center has sponsored forums to help national legislators understand the historical context behind of a host of policy issues, including incarceration, tax reform, the Ukraine crisis, and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  On December 4, 2015, the Center is sponsoring a briefing on the Voting Rights Act.  (I would love to see them do one on religion and the American founding.  I think a lot of GOP legislators need to be informed on this issue!)

This is an outstanding program.  It is yet another way to bring historical knowledge and thinking skills to some of the most important policy issues facing the United States today.

I was aware of the Congressional Briefings program, but I did not know that the National History Center had extended it to college students until Amanda Moniz, the Assistant Director of the Center, brought the Mock Policy Briefing Program to my attention. It is featured in her article in the October 2015 issue of Perspectives on History

Here is a taste:

This fall the National History Center is introducing the Mock Policy Briefings Program, modeled on our own Congressional Briefings by Historians initiative.

The inspiration for the Mock Policy Briefings Program comes from concerns and questions of colleagues and students. Last fall, in an address about the state of civic engagement in the United States, National Endowment for the Humanities chair William “Bro” Adams remarked that the humanities are the intellectual guardians of civic participation and challenged us to think about how we can strengthen civics education and practice. Later, one of the participants in our briefing last winter on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Mark Von Hagen of Arizona State University, told center staff that his students were surprised to learn that he, a historian, was going to Washington to brief congressional staffers.

The Mock Policy Briefings Program responds to Adams’s challenge and students’ curiosity about historians’ public role, along with broad concern in the discipline about declining history enrollments. The program has three goals. It aims to foster students’ understanding of the value of historical perspectives for policy decision making. It seeks to enhance students’ civic engagement by asking them to connect their historical studies to policy-making conversations. And, finally, it aims to help students recognize and showcase the skills and habits of mind they have gained from their history education.

This fall, Temple University’s Jessica Roney has incorporated the briefings model into a course on the history of the City of Brotherly Love. Examining local history within the context of national and international developments, her students will craft a briefing to bring a historical perspective to an issue currently facing Philadelphia policy makers. Members of the class are working both individually to research potential topics and collaboratively to choose and prepare the issue for the class briefing. Once they have identified appropriate policy makers and held a dress rehearsal near the end of the semester, they will hold the formal event before an audience of Philadelphia policy makers. (I am honored to have been invited to attend and offer feedback.) The final assignment for the course is a blog post reflecting on what students learned about how history shapes current policy considerations and how they can apply those lessons going forward. Watch AHA Today (blog.historians.org) to learn more about the students’ experiences.

Read the entire article here.  I especially recommend the section on how other history professors are using this model for student engagement with the past and the present in their classes.  This is definitely something to think about after I return to the classroom in Fall 2016.

Show Your Support for the Funding of History in Schools

I strongly encourage you to write your member of the House of Representatives.  STEM may produce good workers in a capitalist economy, but history and the humanities are essential for the preservation of our democracy.

From the Organization of American Historians via History News Network:

Negotiations to finalize a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) will resume when Congress returns after Labor Day. Members of the House and Senate will be meeting to iron out the differences between the versions of the bill passed by each body. Quite simply, the Senate bill restores federal funding for K-12 history and civics education while the House bill does not. 

The Senate version includes four provisions that create funding for high quality American history, civics, geography, and economics education.  Some House Majority Conferees, however, have already declared their top priority in conference to be eliminating as many new programs and grants as possible.  This poses a direct threat to the Senate provisions that could inject much needed funding into history, civics, and the social studies.

The Organization of American Historians and the National Coalition for History (NCH) urgently need you to contact your member of the House of Representatives. Congressmen Ross (R-FL) and Cicilline (D-RI) have drafted and distributed a sign-on letter urging their colleagues to adopt the history and civics provisions in the Senate’s version of the bill.  We need your help collecting as many signatures on this “Dear Colleague” letter as possible before September 11th so that this letter can have an important impact on the negotiations. 

Please urge your representative to sign the “Dear Colleague” letter supporting key provisions that benefit history and civics education.   

Send an email directly to House members! 

Follow this link to NCH’s website for more information.  

We cannot overstress the importance of this effort. Congress has not reauthorized the ESEA in 15 years so this is likely our only opportunity to get funding restored for K-12 history and civics education.  Time is of the essence, please act today!

Jon Butler
OAH President 2015-2016 Howard R. Lamar Professor Emeritus of American Studies, History, and Religious Studies,  Yale University
Adjunct Research Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

Katherine Finley
Executive Director 
Organization of American Historians  

Our Dysfunctional Congress

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.  His job is to advocate before Congress on behalf of history.  In the November Perspectives of History, White explains what frustrates him about his job.  Here is a small taste: 

Not surprisingly, just 12 percent of Americans now approve of the way Congress is handling its job, matching its all-time low, recorded in October 2008 at the height of the economic crisis, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which was released on September 16. Only 6 percent of registered voters say that most members of Congress have earned re-election. And President Obama’s disapproval ratings are hovering in the low 50 percent range, the worst of his presidency.

The American people are clearly fed up. So the collective response appears to be “throw the bums out.” Well they’ve done that three times over the past four years. They elected a Democratic president to replace a Republican one and control of the House and Senate has flip-flopped between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Like a hyperactive child the body politic seems to be craving immediate gratification. They see problems that have festered for years such as deficit spending, the collapse of the real estate market, lack of a coherent energy policy, and underperforming schools, and demand that their representatives in Congress and the president to fix them right away or suffer the consequences. Incumbency and the ability to look out for constituents that went with seniority that used to be considered an asset is now a liability.

One could argue that a general lack of knowledge of history and civics have contributed mightily to the deterioration of public discourse and the ability of our elected officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to do their jobs. Even a rudimentary knowledge of how Congress works shows that all great legislative achievements in our nation’s past have required serious compromise from both sides of the aisle. They also needed—as the founders clearly intended—a slow and deliberate legislative process. Obviously, the larger the challenge, the more likely it is that a bipartisan solution is needed.

Earlier this year, The Nation’s Report Cards assessing knowledge of U.S. history, civics and geography by students in Grades 4, 8, and 12 showed students at all three levels generally performing at or below proficiency levels in all three subject areas. For example, in 2010, over half (55 percent) of high school seniors performed below the Basic achievement level in U.S. history.

“The report cards in civics and U.S. history, adds to a picture of stagnating or declining overall achievement among U.S. students in the social sciences.” said David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

Despite the evidence and awareness of the problem of civic illiteracy, it appears that subjects like history and civics will be further marginalized when one considers the proposals on the table in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).