Congress convenes in Cullum Hall as
cadets take on immigration reform
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Congress was in session for more than 550 cadets—mostly from the Class of 2015—at the Department of Social Sciences’ seventh Congressional Simulation Exercise.
Over the course of two weeks, four groups of cadets transformed the Cullum Hall Ballroom into a lawmaking house of Congressional Democrats and Republicans, lobbyists, presidential advisers and journalists.
In a departure from the daylong experience in previous semesters, the exercise was condensed to a three-hour session. Cadets could waste no time as they negotiated, debated and legislated the all-important issue of immigration reform.
The advantage of this compressed schedule over a full-day SIMEX was it allowed total participation from cadets enrolled in the American Politics course. It also meant cadets had to spend as much time possible in preparing for the exercise, learning their roles and becoming well-versed with the bill and the issues surrounding it.
A website was established where cadets could promote themselves and their party platform. It was also useful for the media role-players to study their subjects and create storylines; they even posted breaking news reports about events leading up to the SIMEX and its proceedings.
“Cadets had the opportunity to change the outcome of the bill even before they arrived here,” Maj. Heidi Brockmann, American Politics course director and assistant professor, said. “They knew there was limited time to affect things so we emphasized that preparation was key if they want to get the results.”
Each session of the SIMEX opened with a presidential address, role-played by a senior leader at the academy. Once the speech was delivered, cadets went into perpetual motion, at least for the next 180 minutes. They had to work fast, Brockmann said, be decisive and waste little time on idle chatter.
They even worked through lunch, with cadets desperate to keep parties together while maintaining coalitions to get their version of the bill passed. Cadets finding themselves in unfavorable positions with the bill used this time to gain political capital from the media or lobbyists.
The graded exercise is all about accumulation of power in the form of political capital points. The media can use their capital to acquire news scoops, special interest groups use it to influence politicians, while the congressmen employ give-and-take strategies to benefit themselves, their party—and hopefully, their constituents.
“They have to think quickly on their feet and be really organized from the start,” Maj. Scott Smitson, SOSH assistant professor, said. “It’s interesting to see how the lobbyists have formed coalitions and advertise their platforms, which is consistent with what we’ve taught them in class.”
There were, at times, scrupulous deal-making and misuse of power, which also proved educational.
“I would say that a lot of them found that being self-interested often backfires and building coalitions is a lot more difficult than it would seem,” Brockmann said.
Class of 2015 Cadet Faisal Bermamet, as the ranking Democrat in the Senate, felt powerless at times despite his elevated title.
“It only strengthened my belief that power lies where people think it does,” Bermamet said. “Those who believed that I carried the senate threw capital points my way or did what I told them to out of a belief that I carry the group. So I was only as powerful as they believed I could be.”
He said the simulation offered useful insight into the classroom material.
“As for me, I suppose as a foreign cadet this was a valuable experience in American politics and I hope that the glimpse that I got from seeing the SIMEX unfold today is similar to what would actually unfold in the real congress—much simpler and much less streamlined than the real thing,” he said. “It still showed how teamwork, negotiation and concession can turn the tide in politics.”
He was surprised by the boldness of the Republican party members who sided with him against their own leader.
When the first amendment barely passed, he was aided by the other party in a cloture against the minority leader’s filibuster, which eventually secured the vote in favor of the Democrats.
“I hit the minority leader hard as often as I could,” Bermamet said. “I put up one of my senators for 20 negative points—I didn’t follow through with it though—and I did what I had to, whether it was strong arming or compromising, victory was my only goal.”
His one regret was that he failed to keep account of the point distribution in his party. One committee head had stockpiled points which left three senate members short. A smart move, Bermamet said, but he admits having failed to notice it until it was too late to react.
Over the course of four congressional sessions, Brockmann said there were more than a few moments of drama. Press conferences proved noteworthy from their lively exchanges, and she was impressed by the tactics of one interest group.
“One interest group was supremely organized and came in with a screen and projector,” Brockmann said. “They ran commercials and videos. These are real interest groups, so the cadets researched about it online and were very successful.”
Brockmann, a Class of 2001 graduate, had never experienced such an exercise as a cadet, but as faculty, she’s seen how this SIMEX has proven to be quite beneficial to cadets.
“We read about how Congress works in class, but there’s no way they can truly understand how government works without some practical experience,” Brockmann said. “Everyone comes out of it having learned something new, and they’ll have varying opinions about it.”
Class of 2015 Cadet Anthony McConnell gets the scoop from House Democrats as a representative of the powerful Fourth Estate, in his case, a New York Times reporter. Four sessions of Congress convened at Cullum Hall over a two-week timespan to allow more than 550 cadets to experience the practical exercise. The three-hour event included a presidential address, party caucus, press conference, floor debates and voting on an immigration reform bill.
Congressmen tell their side of the immigration reform story to members
of the press.
Class of 2015 Cadet Lisa Junta served as a presidential adviser during the Department of Social Sciences’ 7th Congressional Simulation Exercise. She
is speaking with Class of 2015 Cadet Robert Hume, a House Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Class of 2015 Cadet Gabriel Palma works with other lobbyists in the Tea Party Express to influence Congress with an immigration reform billhanging in the balance.Class of 2015 Cadet Austin Brown served as the House minority leader during the 7th Congressional Simulation Exercise Oct. 24 at Cullum Hall.Immediately after the presidential address he gathered fellow Democratic congressmen for a party caucus.