Every fall I take a class with Professor Pitney. As a domestic politics guru with unparalleled character, Pitney is one of the most entertaining and inspiring educators I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I saved what is commonly considered his “best” class for my senior year: Congress. I was not disappointed. The highlight of the class is a four-night simulation of the United States Senate. We vote on who will be president, which party will hold a majority, and which committees will be simulated, each student adopting the persona, preferences, and policies of one senator. We write legislation, hold hearings, markup bills, and vote.
Beyond looking at the simulation as a challenge to adopt the beliefs and perspective of another person, the experience provides really interesting insight into the inner workings of our government. Beyond required sessions, my peers and I would regularly meet to read and write legislation, create amendments, and whip votes. We spent a fair bit of time researching parliamentary protocol and legal verbiage.
What emerged was a fuzzy picture, a blurred reflection of the experiences of actual senators. In some ways, it seemed empowering – a reminder that behind every law is a legislator, and that there are mechanisms in place to encourage thorough discourse and deliberation. In other ways it served as a dark reminder that polarization and partisanship are powerful, and that policy positions can be adjusted if politically expedient.
The job of a legislator is not one that should be taken lightly. The nuances and complexities of politics can dampen even the brightest, most idealistic ambitions. The harsh realities of toeing the party line and doing what it takes to pass legislation make the job less about doing what is right and more about compromise. The obligations members of Congress must balance – to their own ideals, their constituents, and the nation – are intense and at times contradictory.
The simulation revealed the nuances of government to me in ways that are difficult to articulate. Any simulation alum would agree: politics is less of an art and more of a game, a lot of strategy and a dash of luck.