Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., teeters on glittery, gold four-inch heels, the skirt of her dress swishing as she trails a fellow Republican who is furiously scribbling a Medicare overhaul plan on a yellow legal pad. Other “senators” bounce balloons back and forth through the aisleways; one Republican sits in the back of the chamber, studying an iPad to figure out how to tie his tie.
The chamber, such as it is, is a ballroom at the Boston Sheraton hotel. The senators are type-A teenagers tasked with assuming the personas of real Capitol Hill lawmakers, including their policy views, personal opinions, and constituent demands. The role-play does not, however, extend to wardrobe. The tall brunette playing Thune wears a black dress with a large cutout in the back. But she feels it’s in character. She looks up, eyes hooded in perfectly stenciled eyeliner, and explains: “Well, he’s a good looking guy.”
John Thune in a dress isn’t nearly as surprising as the end result of Harvard University’s Model Congress, where 1,400 high school students colonize an icy Boston conference center and somehow, in very non-congressional fashion, manage to get something done for the American people.
The annual experiment in political potential casts teens from around the country and the world in the roles of congressmen, senators, Cabinet officials, presidential candidates, lobbyists, reporters, and protesters — all the ingredients in America’s current legislative gridlock. Yet, in the course of four days, the students pass more legislation than Congress has this year, much of it addressing issues that have divided the U.S. government for years, such as education, immigration, and the threat of terrorism. The real Congress could learn a lot from them.
“THEY COMPROMISE FOR US”
The first Model Congress session comes to order on Thursday night with partisan bickering that could be straight from C-SPAN. A Republican bill comes up for a vote and two Democrats raise their placards to indicate their support, only to be shouted down by the rest of their caucus. Moderate Republicans who support a Democratic bill hold their votes so close to their chests, literally, that the vote-counter struggles to make a final tally. Every vote is greeted by a war of boos and applause, the aural embodiment of party pressure on Capitol Hill.
At the center of the rancor stands an 18-year-old boy with a shock of brown hair falling over sly, smiling eyes. Chicagoan Alex Kling has been around this carpeted hallway a few times before — four years running.
Alex is nominally playing Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, but he really seems to be channeling a tea party favorite like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Alex is the consummate game player, bent on utilizing every arcane rule, every bit of bureaucratic minutia to shoot down the other side. From the start, his goal is as apparent as the devious grin on his face: to get as much and give as little as possible. “We don’t compromise,” Alex tells his GOP colleagues. “They compromise for us.”
By Friday, though, the game has shifted away from Alex. Suddenly the students start passing legislation. Perhaps that’s because they’re taking time out of their classes and social lives to attend a model Congress; these are the kinds of students who want to get their work done. But it is more than that. After hours of debating one another back-and-forth, in-person, in committee, and on the Senate floor, they begin to see their opponents’ side. It’s difficult to rail against colleagues who are “not really … intelligent” — as the student playing Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., labeled the Democratic caucus on Thursday night — after spending hours and hours engaged in intelligent discussion with them.
The students in Boston roll through an entire weekend of intelligent discussion, and they sometimes change one another’s minds. Portraying Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., 17-year-old Jessica Bernheim of New York City wins over colleagues with breathless streams of facts, whether on the specifics of an abortion procedure or on a small Connecticut town’s internship program for the unemployed. This, Jessica says, is what’s missing in Washington. Too often politicians get away with talking at TV cameras and empty chairs rather than having to face one another and debate the issues. Where Jessica listens to and debates her colleagues to engender consensus, real senators stick to positions that poll well in their home states or to messaging provided by a private consultant. What was once debate on Capitol Hill has become merely a show for the folks back home.
In Washington, a big part of the show is railing about hot-button bills that have no chance of even making it to a vote. Behind those bills are actual problems that America is struggling with; in Boston, they don’t just rail about them, they try to solve them. As Durbin, a stalwart liberal on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Jessica strides into committee on Saturday morning and proposes legislation to extend employment nondiscrimination laws to include employment status, gender identity, and sexual orientation. It’s an idea widely opposed by Republicans and their social conservative base. Congress has considered, but failed to act on, similar bills stretching back to 1994. Of the 20 such bills introduced, only two even made it to a vote.