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This Old House: Meet the House Historian

Hidden away in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building are an assortment of small, unpretentious offices. Matthew Wasniewski, the House historian, and his staff of about 10 occupy them. Working in conjunction with the Clerk’s Office of Art and Archives, the Office of the Historian is vital in preserving the work, culture and heritage of the House of Representatives.

History preservation in both houses of Congress is actually a relatively new concept, with the creation of the Senate historian in 1975 and the House historian in 1983, in preparation for the 1987 bicentennial of Congress. Raymond Smock was the first House historian and held the title until 1995, when then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., fired him. The position then remained vacant for 10 years.

The separate Office of History Preservation was created during that time, in 2002, under the auspices of the Office of the Clerk. Its role was to maintain the material and records archives, and prominent historian Robert V. Remini was tasked by the Library of Congress with writing a full history of the House, which was published in 2006. Then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert — a former high school history teacher — appointed Remini as House historian in 2005.

When Remini retired in 2010, a bipartisan search committee created by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, concluded that the House historian and historians working in the Office of History Preservation should be combined into one — the Office of the Historian. They then named Wasniewski the new House historian; he reports directly to the speaker.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Wasniewski developed an early love of history from his father, an avid user of metal detectors who took his son to various local farms to look for Civil War and Colonial-era artifacts (always with permission from the owners).

He graduated with a double major in history and journalism from James Madison University in 1991. (And he triumphantly returned to give the commencement address at his alma mater on May 9.) During his brief stint as a sports editor for the Fauquier Free Citizen, he maintained his interest in political and diplomatic history, and eventually went back to complete his studies, earning his Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland in 2004. After four years at the Capitol Historical Society, a job opened up in the Clerk’s Office of History Preservation, which eventually led to his current position.

Wasniewski and his staff regard themselves as the “institutional memory of the House.” One of their main tasks is to respond to questions from both the media and the members. A common question from members — especially new ones — is, “Who occupied my office before me?”

Wasniewski takes pride in the ability of his staff to answer every inquiry in a timely fashion, although occasionally they come across a stumper or two. A couple of years ago, for example, someone called wanting to know if anyone had ever read the Constitution in its entirety on the House floor. After a lengthy search through the Congressional Record, Wasniewski found the answer: “No.”

They also give 50 or 60 talks per year to members, school groups and visiting dignitaries, usually in tandem with exhibits in the Capitol and the Capitol Visitor Center. The office also produces a number of voluminous publications illustrating the diversity of House history, including “Women in Congress, 1917-2006,” “Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007,” and most recently, “Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-2012.” These extensive histories each take about four years of research and writing before publishing, and are centerpieces of the website. Print versions can be purchased through the Government Printing Office.

Working closely with the Clerk’s Office of Art and Archives is another major aspect of Wasniewski’s job. Though not directly responsible for the actual archiving of House records — this is the responsibility of the archivist, who is part of the clerk’s office — he sits on the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress. This panel includes the Senate historian and is chaired by the House clerk and the Senate secretary, and advises which records in the collection have historical value.

Wasniewski also takes great pride in the chamber’s oral history program. Established in 2004, it offers unique perspectives on varying facets of House history.

The program’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, largely in part to its oral history of 9/11, which was a 10th anniversary project that benefitted from the participation of many members and staffers — both past and present.

According to Wasniewski, it is the oral histories that — more than any other aspect of his work — bring a human face to the bureaucratic nature of the House. One of his favorites is an oral history with Glenn Rupp, a House page who recalled his training of a young Lyndon B. Johnson as a House doorkeeper in the early 1930s. Currently Wasniewski and his staff are working on the oral histories of former House leaders, starting with Hastert.

It is the ability to get “to know the people behind the procedures” as he puts it that holds so much appeal.

During his work and research, he has uncovered a cache of characters, including the late Rep. George Holden Tinkham, R-Mass., an upper-crust congressman from Boston who championed many progressive ideals long after progressivism fell from vogue and often in detriment to his leadership positions.

Tinkham was also a big-game hunter, and his trophy collection in his office became the stuff of legend in the House. A fellow hunter, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., in his own oral history with the Historian’s office, fondly remembers Tinkham’s trophy room from his days as a page.

Wasniewski invites members, staffers and anyone interested in the history of “the People’s House” to visit, which he says is a “great starting place” for anyone who wants to learn more about the long and rich history of this legislative body.