MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A small fraction of 38 years worth of documents highlighting the career of former West Virginia Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall is just a small portion of West Virginia’s Congressional history now on display at WVU.
One corner of the Rockefeller Gallery at WVU’s downtown library is dedicated to Rahall, who served West Virginia’s now defunct 4th congressional district (1977-1993) and the 3rd congressional district (1993-2015).
But the full gallery is much larger that a single West Virginia Congressman. The exhibit explores the functionality of America’s two deliberative bodies, its past, its present, and how it interacted with both the American people and the Executive Branch.
“What I hope people will take away is that Congress is a really big and complex institution,” said Danielle Emerling, the exhibit’s Assistant Curator. “I think it’s much easier for people to understand the Executive Branch because there’s the President to focus on, right? In Congress, you have more than 500 people representing a diverse range of views from all across America.”
That included, for 38 years, the grandson of Lebanese-Protestant immigrants — Congressman Nick Rahall. The former Congressman is prominently featured in a photo with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, part of the exhibit’s focus on Rahall’s contributions to American foreign policy.
“He also did a lot for the district,” Emerling added. “I think you’ll see sort of the environmental and economic issues he was involved in — tourism in that area with the New River Gorge and bringing tourism to that part of the state as well.”
But “a lot for the district” is always a time-sensitive matter when you can be fired every two years. In his bid for a 20th term in 2014, Rahall was defeated by former state legislator Evan Jenkins — now a candidate for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.
Whether in 1976, 2014, or 2018, Emerling, who is also the Congressional and Political Papers Archivist at WVU Libraries, said you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of the major issues in each of these campaigns haven’t stopped being major issues in the present.
And there is no better example of this than in the correspondence from constituents on display at the exhibit, she said.
“Members get a lot of mail, and now e-mail of course, from constituents about different issues,” Emerling said. “But we wanted to represent different viewpoints on the issues. We tried to get pros and cons letters.”
“At least from these papers that we have from the 20th Century, a lot of the issues that we’re talking about today you’ll see in these papers. Some of the arguments are exactly the same as they were that many years ago. And sometimes even the phrasing that people use is very eerily similar to what we have now.”
That may speak to a number of things about Congress — a body with an approval rating that has remained around 20 percent for years. But Emerling said it speaks to something else: how Congress is supposed to function.
“I know we get frustrated with inefficiencies, but in a democracy they are trying to or should be trying to consider expertise, their constituents’ views, their views on a particular issue as well,” she said. “And that takes time.”
“And it is very messy, the way things get done in Congress. It is meant to be deliberative and kind of slow sometimes.”
That doesn’t mean Congress, no matter how slow, is a hapless institution. In fact, the modern film industry has a habit of depicting period pieces — like the U.S. during the Cold War — where scenes with Congressional Committees were often larger-than-life.
“Committees were a really powerful part of Congress,” Emerling said. “Committee Chairmen had a lot of power in the institution, and they were sometimes referred to as barons because they sort of had these little fiefdoms.”
Outside of Hollywood, there are plenty of “larger than life” moments to choose from; including Senator Joe McCarthy in 1954, Fred Rogers in 1969, and even as recent as last month — with Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg testifying about privacy concerns involving the giant social media platform.
From Nick Rahall’s papers alone, archivists like Emerling are still sorting through thousands of boxes worth of material — a reminder, she said, of all of the complexities of the U.S. Congress.
“I think it’s important to remember sort of the deliberative nature of Congress and to kind of understand the complexities of the institution, and I hope people will have kind of an appreciation for that after they’ve seen some of these materials,” Emerling said.
The gallery will remain on display at WVU’s Downtown Campus Library until the end of the year.