The United States Capitol Historical Society paid tribute Wednesday to the House Energy and Commerce Committee as part of a 20-plus-year tradition.
Since 1995, the society has recognized one congressional panel at a special event each year.
“In a way, the committees are a forgotten part of the system,” said Don Carlson, the chairman of the society. “People remember the legislation and different things, but oftentimes they don’t remember the process that they had gone through to get there. Despite partisanship today, a lot of what happens in committees is bipartisan.”
Carlson kicked off the event in Statuary Hall with a toast to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which was followed by remarks from panel Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon and ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey. Two former chairmen, Republican Rep. Fred Upton and former Democratic Rep. John D. Dingell, both of Michigan, delivered the keynote speeches.
“It’s nice, on occasion, particularly when [staffers and members] take a lot of abuse, to remind [them] that their service is appreciated,” Carlson said before the event. “We try to focus on everything they have in common, and we totally stay away from anything that they feel that they’re different on.”
The society prepared poster boards displaying both new and old photographs to honor the work of the Energy and Commerce Committee over the years.
It tries to alternate between honoring a Senate and a House committee each year, and invites current and former members of the panel to the celebration.
“We get a really strong representation on both sides of the aisle,” Carlson said. “That’s one of the key things when we pick a committee — we make certain that we have the buy-off from both the minority and the majority, from the absolute beginning before we pursue anything, before it’s truly a bipartisan celebration.”
Current staffers aren’t forgotten either.
“We’ve been able to invite all the staffers in the minority and the majority because these committee dinners are honorific and we want to get all the staffers in there we can,” said Marilyn Lee Green, the society’s director of corporate giving.
Carlson was chief of staff to former Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, the House Ways and Means chairman from 1995 to 2001. Ways and Means was the first panel honored in 1995 in a joint celebration with the House Commerce Committee.
Recent panels honored include Senate Appropriations last year, for which former Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland returned to the Capitol, and the Joint Committee on Taxation in 2016.
As part of the celebration, the society’s chief historian, William C. diGiacomantonio, writes up a history of the committee being honored each year.
“Early on, we were really surprised that most of these committees have very little written about their history,” Carlson said.
When choosing a panel to honor, the society throws ideas out to its board, makes inquiries to see the level of interest from the committee staff and then schedules it around the legislative calendar.
“We’ve never had a committee say no,” Green laughed.
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