Yesterday on the floor of the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made good use of the historical record. He asked Joni Ernst (R-IA), who was presiding over the Senate at the time, to officially state the number of consecutive days the ACA was under consideration and the number of hours spent in consideration. In doing so, she cited the Secretary of the Senate and the Senate Library.
Now, the idea that Obamacare was done in secret without contributions from Republicans is so pervasive that even official Senate records might not make a difference, but it is important to note that we have those records.
We haven’t always. While the current Office of the Secretary of the Senate is a big operation, it started as one person whose job it was to keep minutes, send messages, and make sure senators had paper, ink, and quills, i.e. to keep the Senate operating for the sake of the senators, not the public. Both the House and the Senate kept journals, as is required in the Constitution. These are basically the minutes, listing bills introduced, nominees proposed, and letters read into the record. In some cases, we see days on end of no quorum and swift adjournment!
The Senate wasn’t initially open to the public, and while the House was, there was no one officially keeping record of what was said. Instead, newspaper reporters recorded House speeches and debates, which is why 19th century newspapers are full of multi-column speeches.
As a result, the first official published “records” of the debates in Congress – the Annals of Congress – covered the 1st through 18th Congresses, 1789-1824, but were compiled after the fact from records and newspaper reports, and only published between 1834 and 1856. The subsequent Register of Debates (1824-37) was published contemporaneously, but is still primarily a summary rather than verbatim transcripts.
The Congressional Globe (1833-73) started with summaries and moved towards verbatim transcripts over time, and from 1873 on, the Congressional Record has provided the most comprehensive official account of what’s said in the legislative branch.
As my links indicate, the Annals of Congress, the Register of Debates, the Congressional Globe, and the first year of the Congressional Record are available through the Library of Congress. If you don’t have access to the full bound edition (though what home is complete without it), you can piece it together through several different sites, including Archive.org.
In 1979, C-SPAN made Congress even more accessible by broadcasting live, though as last year’s Periscoped Democratic sit-in reminded us, C-SPAN cameras can only be used when Congress is in session, and the party that controls Congress decides when that is.
So often, though, we hear things like “history is written by the winners,” and lots of historians work on the history of people who often left scant record – even people who were barred by law from reading! The records we have for Congress aren’t perfect, but they’re a darn sight better than what we have for lots of other things in the past.
Still, though, they don’t capture everything. One of the most confounding things about the Puerto Rican debt crisis is that Puerto Rico was explicitly excluded from bankruptcy protection when a law was rewritten in the 1980s, and while there’s at least one mention of someone raising the issue as the law moved through Congress, there’s no indication in the record of why the exclusion was inserted in the first place.
But the situation I started with is different. I said earlier that there was an “idea” that Obamacare was passed in secrecy.
But it happened less than ten years ago.
And many of the people involved in it are still in Congress.
And we have the Congressional Record.
And we have C-SPAN footage.
And we have the Senate Librarian.
And we have Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and the rest on tape.
Obamacare’s secret rushed passage isn’t an idea. It isn’t a myth. It isn’t a common misconception. It’s not something we can’t verify because we don’t have any contemporaneous records.
It’s a lie.
It’s a lie, and it’s also a reminder that history isn’t just about facts, evidence, and “the truth.” If it were, Chuck Schumer would never have needed to make Joni Ernst read the facts into the record. If it were, Joni Ernst reading the facts into the record would have mattered.