–by Joanna Hallac
For the second in our series of interviews with Capitol Hill insiders, I am very pleased to share the thoughts and insights of Representative Adrian Smith (R-NE). I also happen to know the Congressman through my graduate work at GW; I had the privilege of learning directly from him and from his Chief of Staff, Jeffrey Shapiro, who co-taught a phenomenal course last spring called “Running and Ruling: A Member’s Perspective.” I must say that I was very awed by the chance to take a class co-taught by a member of Congress and his chief of staff, not to mention some of the guests they brought in to speak to our class (Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the House Majority Whip, was among them). To go from teaching about history and government to getting first-hand insights and stories from someone who will forever be in the annals of congressional history was pretty exciting for me, to say the least.
In continuing with his commitment to and early background in education, Congressman Smith devoted his scarce time to my graduate class as he has once again done here for us at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society in our effort to fulfill our mission to educate and inform the public about the history of the Capitol, the institution of Congress, and all those members who have and continue to serve in its chambers. If you read our previous interview with Dr. Rodney Whitlock, Health Policy Director for Senator Grassley (R-IA), you may notice that some of the questions are the same or similar, while others are quite different; however, regardless of the questions, the answers provided by Rep. Smith offer a very unique glimpse into how history plays a role in the inner workings of Congress and its members. I hope you enjoy!
JH: What is your home state and district?
Rep. Smith: I am a sixth-generation Nebraskan. I proudly represent the people of the state’s Third Congressional District.
JH: What was your major in college/grad school?
Rep. Smith: I received an undergraduate degree in Education from the University of Nebraska.
JH: Were you always interested in working in DC and in politics? If not, what had you originally planned to do?
Rep. Smith: Actually, no. My parents were educators and I originally wanted to follow in their footsteps.
JH: What led you to run for office?
Rep. Smith: I became very concerned about the direction of our country and had a desire to be involved in the policymaking process.
JH: What is your favorite historical period and area (world, American, European, etc.)?
Rep. Smith: The Revolutionary War period is my favorite historical period because it chronicles the founding of our country and the views of the Founders.
JH: How conscious are you of the history of Congress in your job?
Rep. Smith: If we are going to move the country forward, we must look at our past to figure out what Congress did right and what it did not. Each day I serve, I am more inspired by the foresight of our Founders.
JH: How do you, for lack of a better word, interact with history on a daily basis in your job?
Rep. Smith: With each new day there is more history to learn. I understand how important it is to maintain records and documentation of the legislative process so we can have something to draw from during future policymaking.
JH: Who held your seat before you did? Is there any historical significance to your particular district or seat that people aren’t aware of?
Rep. Smith: Tom Osborne represented the Third District before I was elected. I reside among the most documented landmarks, such as Chimney Rock, on the Oregon Trail, the path which countless settlers took to settle the West crosses through nearly the entire district. In fact, I have a photo hanging in my office of every Representative who has served the Third District.
JH: Do you think elected officials pay enough attention to history in doing their jobs and in making their decisions? If not, do you think they should and if so, do you have an example you can share?
Rep. Smith: Here’s a good historical perspective: I can’t think of a single nation in history which taxed, borrowed, and spent its way to prosperity.
JH: If you were asked to teach a high school history lesson on any historical topic/event of your choosing, what would choose and why?
Rep. Smith: I would choose to talk about how my great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Europe during the 19th Century to become migrant farm workers in Nebraska. I think it is a great example to use to discuss the heritage of our state.
JH: What’s your favorite story of congressional history that you’ve heard since becoming a member of Congress?
Rep. Smith: My favorite story would have to be surrounding President John Quincy Adams’ death in the old Speaker’s Room. He is the only person to serve in the House of Representatives after having been President. Today, the room serves as the Ladies’ Lounge and the couch on which he died has since been restored and returned to the room.
I am also a big fan of that John Quincy Adams story, and just to elaborate on it a bit for those who may not know the whole story, the former President suffered a stroke while at his desk in the old House chamber where, as Rep. Smith just pointed out, he served for 17 years following his term in the White House, passing away two days later in what is now the Ladies’ Lounge. How can you not love a good historical anecdote?
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed hearing the insights of Congressman Smith; clearly, he is a member of Congress who appreciates and acknowledges the history of the chamber he works in, the institution he is a part of, and the lasting importance of the decisions he makes there every day (I would imagine most members of Congress are no different in those respects). I again thank him for taking the time out of his very hectic schedule and giving us the chance to hear answers to some questions I’m sure the Congressman does not get asked very often.
Make sure you continue to stay tuned to our blog to see who pops up next in our “Insider’s Guide” interview series. Do you have a member of Congress or a particular staff member you would like to hear from? What about a historical question you’d like answered? Be sure to let us know and to give us your feedback!