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 history.house.gov 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 history.house.gov, 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.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.