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.
Jessica’s Republican colleagues immediately pile on one another to shoot down the bill. The conservatives would instead like to see a statute of limitations on discrimination lawsuits, along with legislation to combat discrimination against nonunion workers. The latter would be a huge victory for the GOP and a major headache for Democrats, who rely on unions for fundraising, organization, and get-out-the-vote efforts nationwide. But the Republicans’ real sticking point is Jessica’s plan to let the Justice Department police discrimination rather than have individuals file suits on their own. Echoing their real-world counterparts, the Republicans don’t want to hand oversight power to the federal government.
Finally, Henry Eccles — a high school junior playing, if possible, a taller, lankier Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine — stands up, putting an end to the arguing. A centrist himself, Henry makes an impassioned Snowe-like plea for bipartisanship. Committee members applaud as he calls on his Republican colleagues to consider giving in on the gay-rights measure in exchange for their own provisions.
But Jessica quickly cuts in. A few heads fall quietly down onto desks in resignation. Turning to her Democratic colleagues, Jessica argues for a more liberal bill. Henry turns and interrupts her, incensed. “I’m telling you, if you’re sticking to the left,” he says, “you’re not going to get what you want.”
FIGHTING FOR COMPROMISE
About halfway through the morning committee session, the students break off into smaller groups. After a few minutes of trying to persuade Jessica to compromise, most of the Republicans cross to the other side of the room to write up their own legislation. A single Republican moderate stays behind to do what he does best: broker a deal.
That moderate is 18-year-old Ben Tannenbaum of Chicago, who spends a good third of the Senate’s full sessions kneeling, ducking through the aisles, imploring both caucuses to compromise. Portraying one of the Senate’s most centrist Republicans, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the position suits him. On top of that, people just seem to like Ben. He has the charisma of a politician and a manner when he speaks, looking up at his colleagues from beneath round, tortoise-shell glasses, that makes people listen. When it comes time to vote, much of the Republican caucus — and even some of the Democrats — look to him instinctively for direction.
Try to imagine anyone in the actual Senate today commanding that kind of respect.
Ben spends 20 minutes with Jessica in committee on a Saturday morning, pushing her to concede the Justice Department provision in her bill. As time runs out, Ben asks again for Jessica to budge, promising that he can get Republicans to back her position on gay rights, despite his opposition to same-sex marriage, if she would just give in a little. But like so many senators on the Hill, Jessica won’t move. So the committee moves without her.
By the end of the session, a coalition of conservative and moderate Republicans pushes through their own compromise, dropping the Justice Department provision. The new bill includes a major concession to the Democrats, incorporating gay-rights protections into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it also has several Republican gains, including codifying nondiscrimination against nonunion workers, eliminating a segment of President Obama’s health care legislation that imposes a $3,000 fine on companies for each low-income worker hired, and instituting a statute of repose on all discrimination lawsuits to prevent excessive or fraudulent litigation.
A begrudging Ben says the bill gets a lot done for his constituents without compromising his own principles, and signs on just seconds before the committee resumes debate. Although the measure garners even some moderate Democratic support, Jessica vows to oppose it. Ben addresses the full Republican caucus around 5 p.m. on Saturday, calling on them to support the bill, which accomplishes some of what they want, even if the gay-rights provision is “a tough pill to swallow.”
Within seconds, he is right back by Jessica’s side, pleading with her to support the bill, too. A vote is called and the room goes quiet for the first time in hours. Ben remains kneeling in the aisle as placards go up. More than half of the GOP caucus votes yea, as does the entire Democratic caucus — including Jessica. Shouts go up on both sides of the aisle as the Senate president announces the bill has passed. “Nice job, guys,” Ben tells a few Democrats.
As the students filter out for the night, even Jessica seems surprised by her change of heart. Smiling, she says the bill did accomplish a lot of what she wanted — and she would rather accomplish something than nothing.
On Sunday morning, that sentiment is echoed in every corner of the Boston Sheraton as Model Congress comes to a close. Looking back at their accomplishments over four days, many take to the Senate floor in the final hours and question why the real Congress has so much trouble solving the country’s issues. As one Republican senator notes: “I wish the Senate in real life would be like this and actually get things done.”
Grown-up advisers at the Model Congress say they see a clear trend toward consensus-building among their students. Our political system is failing and these kids see that, says government teacher Mary Jane McKay of the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond, Va., an eight-year veteran of the Harvard event. McKay says her students tell her: “We don’t want to repeat what they’re doing in D.C.… Our leaders don’t seem to be able to lead.”
The Boston weekend closes with a speech by Model Congress copresident Shohan Shetty, who urges the mock politicians not to be disillusioned by the real Congress. “It would be easy to join the masses” and lose hope, he says, adding: “I hope you’ve seen this weekend that our model of government can work.”
Of course, in the real Congress, lawmakers face pressures no model can simulate, including the demands of major campaign contributors, the ever-present fear of angering constituents and losing reelection, and the drumbeat of interest groups pushing lawmakers toward ideological corners and away from compromise.
Still, the Model Congress is a reminder of just how much lawmakers could accomplish if they prized solving the nation’s problems over any of those outside influences. In just four days, 1,400 high school students passed bills to confront America’s collapsing infrastructure and the economic downturn, to improve education, and to reform the legal system.
In this Model Nation, the federal government has increased funding for Head Start programs to help low-income children, a boon for Democrats, while reducing administrative costs and providing oversight to prevent fraud, both Republican measures. It has established a system allowing private companies to bid on infrastructure projects at the state level, giving Democrats the investment in public-works projects they want without interfering with private enterprise as Republicans fear — all while creating jobs. In the midst of economic catastrophe, it has increased the unemployment-insurance benefits that liberals have fought for while at Republicans’ request, making the qualifications for them more stringent to avoid abuses and prevent the program from adding to the national debt.
In all, President Barack Obama — whose slight features hidden beneath long, red hair belie a powerful speaking voice — signs 28 pieces of legislation into law. Not everyone got exactly what they wanted, but as Jessica put it, they got some of it. And when the other choice is nothing, that’s enough.