When Congress Says It’s Sorry

How lawmakers apologize.

On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted to issue a formal apology for its repeated failures to pass anti-lynching legislation. According to the resolution, Congress ignored hundreds of proposed anti-lynching bills as thousands of African-Americans were killed between 1882 and the 1968. When do federal lawmakers say they’re sorry?

Not very often. As far as anyone can remember, the practice began in the late 1980s. (Congressional records from 1873 to 1989 haven’t yet been digitized, and no one has done exhaustive research on the matter.) In 1987, the House passed a resolution to apologize for the internment and relocation of Japanese-Americans (and the relocation of Aleuts) during World War II. The Senate passed an equivalent bill the following year.

In 1992, the Senate voted to apologize for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The House followed suit in 1993, and Congress expressed its official regrets to Native Hawaiians. The House, though, rejected a 1997 proposal to apologize for slavery, and the Senate failed to pass an anti-lynching apology last year. In 2004, some members of Congress also tried unsuccessfully to pass an official declaration of remorse for the treatment of American Indians. (Both houses are again considering an apology for the treatment of Indians.)

Why are apologies so rare? Lawmakers might be afraid that an admission of guilt will lead to claims for government reparations, like those offered to the victims of wartime internment. Bills calling for an investigation of reparations for slavery have been introduced again and again over the last few decades. A formal apology for a single injustice done to a single group also might invite demands from other groups.

On the other hand, purely symbolic votes without policy implications are popular on Capitol Hill. Congressional tributes that express general appreciation for a person or thing date back to the early days of the nation and continue to the present day. Last Wednesday, for example, the Senate passed a bill to recognize the importance of sun safety. A few months earlier, senators unanimously agreed to commend the men’s gymnastics team from the University of Oklahoma for winning the NCAA championship.

Bonus Explainer: Congress did vote on an apology, albeit of a different sort, at least once in the 19th century. In 1838, a pair of feuding representatives from Tennessee exchanged “warm words and a mutual assault.” A third congressman stepped forward with a resolution “that the said Hopkins L. Turney and John Bell do apologize to the House for violating its privileges and offending its dignity.” The House voted to reject the proposal, and Bell and Turney expressed their regrets uncompelled.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Assistant Historian of the U.S. Senate Betty Koed, Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives Robert Remini, Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont, and Julian Zelizer of Boston University.