Congressional SIMEX provides cadets with "real feel" for politics
Story and photos by Mike Strasser
WEST POINT, N.Y. (Dec. 4, 2013) — Roughly 550 cadets entered the simulation exercise with a fair share of negative opinions about the way Congress and the government works. After a few hours of role-playing, the perspectives didn’t change much, but they could empathize.
Each semester cadets studying American Politics in the Department of Social Sciences participate in the Congressional SIMEX. In one of four sessions they take on the roles of senators and representatives of both parties, presidential aides, lobbyists and journalists. If it sounds like fun, it isn’t. In the course of a few hours, the exercise runs the gamut of congressional activities—from party caucuses, a press conference, floor debate and amendment voting.
Class of 2016 Cadet Jasmine Lamb was trying her best to be a strong speaker of the house—a position that wields much power.
“I don’t really feel in control right now, but only because this is the first time I’ve done this,” she said. “I’m kind of getting the hang of it though and learning how difficult the position is—it’s like a great, big compromise.”
The SIMEX is designed so that interests between parties and houses aren’t aligned and conflict is inevitable.
“It requires them to make compromises, build alliances and create value and that’s really how we ask them to succeed in this SIMEX,” Capt. Michael Harrison, American Politics instructor, said.
Preparation is key to this success and the SIMEX is actually the culmination of six weeks of instruction. Harrison said it’s obvious which cadets enter the SIMEX well-prepared because they understand how the rules work and how to negotiate the available options.
“Those who don’t prepare usually fall flat on their faces,” Harrison said. “I think it really drives home the fact that knowledge is power. The people who succeeded had more information and knew how to use it in certain situations.”
Lamb said she felt prepared heading into the SIMEX but it wasn’t enough.
“It’s more about having confidence in myself and not always second-guessing myself,” she said. “I’ve prepared myself for this and I have great leadership working with me. I just need to make sure I have the confidence to get everything done.”
Cadets serving as journalists post stories on the board to represent traditional media outlets but also use an online blog to incorporate social media in the Congressional Simulation Exercise.
Roughly 550 cadets enrolled in the American Politics course in the Department of Social Sciences participated in one of four sessions of the Congressional Simulation Exercise. It’s the culmination of six weeks of studies and preparation as cadets took on the roles of House and Senate members, presidential aides, lobbyists and journalists. The agenda was to pass a comprehensive energy bill and cadets were graded on the accumulation of political capital and the outcome of the vote.
During the first iteration, the cadets were able to agree on a far right-leaning bill which was vetoed by the president, and couldn’t be overridden due to lack of votes. No two sessions are ever the same, Harrison said. Sometimes a press conference will include the entire Congress and even lobbyists in attendance. Another could be more informal between party leadership and the press pool.
“It’s very flexible in how it goes each time and depends greatly on the leadership style of those in charge and, again, their preparation,” Harrison said.
Harrison said cadets will struggle to balance their own interests with what’s important to who they are representing—whether it is the media serving the public, presidential aides serving the executive office or congressmen who serve their states.
“One of the central questions we ask in this course is how can we craft an environment in which cadets can learn and retain knowledge, and how can we challenge them and challenge their assumptions,” Harrison said. “Within the SIMEX, they can feel what it is like in politics—they feel the conflict and feel all the different responsibilities.
“This puts cadets in an environment they’re not used to, and it really becomes a no-win situation because within the framework of the SIMEX there can be no true solution,” he added. “So they have to figure out how to grapple with that and figure out how to succeed within that ambiguous environment.”
Harrison said the department moved away from the previous SIMEX topic of immigration reform to focus on energy since that has become a key issue in the Army and at West Point.
“The question they’ve had to examine over the last six weeks or so is what does America’s energy policy look like and how do we secure our nation’s energy future,” Harrison said. “So they have to look at different options and we try to dig deep into the policy issues.”
Every semester, the SOSH instructors invite experts to observe the proceedings and offer insight to cadets. During one session, Jason Brodoff and David Sandalow from Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy were in attendance. Another group of cadets heard from a former commandant of cadets, Maj. Gen. William Rapp, who now serves as the Army’s chief legislative liaison.