U.S. Congress, American government, Congressional Committees, Legislative Processes, Small Group Dynamics, Social Studies
After completing this lesson, students will have a practical understanding of the congressional system of committees and floor action. Students also will have engaged directly in informal negotiations with fellow student-legislators in order to get legislation passed.
1. The action takes place in the unicameral legislature of the Nation of 216 (or your room number). Students divide into political parties, either “Stars” or “Stripes.” “Stars” are concerned with classroom management issues (tests, quizzes, homework, etc); “Stripes” focus their attention on classroom environment issues (food in class, tardiness, etc).
2. Students elect their party leader who will have responsibilities on simulation day as described below.
3. As homework several nights before the simulation, students will prepare at least one legislative idea based on their party focus. You, as the teacher, formats the legislative ideas into bills (see Resources) and assigns legislation to one of four committees: (1) Tests and Quizzes, (2) Homework, (3) Classroom Environment, and (4) Food (or whatever committees best fit your particular situation). You must also assign students to each committee. Make sure the majority party in your class has a majority on each committee. The committees can vary in size, according to the number of bills assigned to each. DON’T ASSIGN THE LEADERS TO A COMMITTEE!
4. Tell students that if their legislation is passed and signed into law by the “benevolent dictator” (you), then the law will be enforced for the rest of the semester. However, the benevolent dictator maintains an absolute, irreversible veto over legislation passed by the simulation, so the student legislators have to keep that in mind when drafting their bills. Eliminating all tests, for example, will not be signed into law, so students must consider practical realities when drafting legislation.
5. Students receive a “Student Packet" (see Resources) prior to the exercise.
Procedure for the Simulation
1. Committee hearing (5 minutes). Each committee will have 5 minutes to consider any and all bills assigned to their committee. The limited time simulates the real legislative process in which good ideas remain in committee due to political pressures, time, or any other number of other reasons. The majority party elects a chairperson. The chairperson sets the agenda and calls and records each proposal for a vote. A simple majority in favor will pass legislation from the committee to the floor. Bills may be amended in committee by the committee members simply by writing what they want on the bill itself.
2. Reporting to the party leader (2 minutes). Promptly at the expiration of the five-minute period, the committees must adjourn. Committee chairpersons will report all actions on legislation in their committees to their party leader.
3. Setting the floor calendar (3 minutes). The two party leaders set the legislative floor calendar (i.e., the order that the bills passed from committees will be heard in the time remaining). In order to manufacture some tension in the process, each leader is told that it is in their party’s interest to have as many of their own bills heard as possible, versus hearing more of the other party’s bills. The two leaders work out whatever method of bill ordering they wish. You should not interfere with this process! After three minutes, you should stop the two party leaders, collect the balance of the unordered bills, and immediately commence floor debate.
4. You, as the Speaker, call the Congress simulation to order and read the first bill in its entirety, including any amendments adopted in committee. Floor debate commences for the time remaining in class. A modified set of Roberts Rules of Order (handout) shall control the debate. The Speaker (the teacher) shall moderate the debate, including calling on only those students who are recognized to speak by their party leader. Sponsors of legislation have 30 seconds to introduce his or her bill. Student-legislators have 30 seconds to speak, ask questions of the sponsor, etc. Bills may be amended on the floor, but must be tabled to do so – a calculated risk by the student, because the majority party leader determines when the bill is next heard. A simple majority is required to pass legislation from the Congress simulation to the president, the benevolent despot (the teacher).
5. NOTE: The more formal you run the simulation, the more formal the students act. Allow them to be confounded, frustrated, etc. It adds to the creative tension of the exercise!
Review reflection writing assignment due the next day.Homework: One-page reflection paper wherein student discusses what he or she felt about the simulation (See Resources).
Adapted from “Classroom Congress” by Dennis J. Duffy, Libertyville High School, Libertyville, Illinois