More than 120 students from the area gathered for a model congress sponsored by Rep. Robert Dold (R-Kenilworth) on Saturday at Stevenson High School, hoping to leave knowing more about the legislative process.
What students from New Trier, Glenbrook South, Highland Park, Deerfield, Lake Forest, Stevenson, Buffalo Grove and other high schools learned was that Dold’s job was a lot harder than they imagined.
“The process is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be,” Glenbrook South senior Edwin Belogorlov said. “There is so much more in real life.”
The students were given legislation to develop that involved work in three committees—ways and means, appropriations and foreign affairs. They met in committee and later general session to resolve differences.
They were each assigned a U.S. House member as a role to play. Some students agreed with the views of the person they were playing while others did not.
Students began the day hearing from representatives of the Concord Coalition and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The Concord Coalition advocates fiscal prudence and AIPAC lobbies for a strong relationship between the United States and Israel, according to Dold’s district director Kelley Folino.
Playing politics with politics
“I want you to get engaged. I hope you got a glimpse into the process,” Dold told the group at the end of the session. “The more youth who are engaged, we’re all going to be better off."
Some of the students are already involved. Lake Forest High School junior Cole Sunderland interned for Dold’s 2010 campaign while Christopher Frey, a Glenbrook South senior, has been working for state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg (D-Evanston).
Sunderland was assigned the role of U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a liberal Democrat from New York City. He tried to stay within his role but found it hard at times. His mother’s strong Republican views helped motivate him to join the Dold campaign. The Democrats negotiating strategy Saturday also weighed on him.
“It seemed the Democrats got all they wanted,” Sunderland said of the appropriations committee. “They highballed it so they could negotiate it down to what they wanted.”
Sunderland wasn't the only one who felt that way. Committee chairman Justin Hyun and committee members Stephen Jones and Christopher Lees agreed. Hyun is a Stevenson senior from Buffalo Grove, Jones is a New Trier junior from Winnetka and Lees is a New Trier sophomore from Kenilworth.
“We started at the bottom of what we wanted and went up from there,” Lees said, while Jones and Hyun nodded in agreement.
As they neared the end of the committee session with a resolution in sight, the committee deadlocked at 17-17. As chairman, Hyun needed to find a way to break the tie.
“We really had to compromise, it was really hard,” Hyun said. “We [the Republicans] had to compromise more. It was in their favor.”
In the end, it was Jones who understood what was necessary to end the tie and send the bill to the floor for a vote.
“We had to persuade just one person,” Jones said.
Learning how to compromise
Frey was cast in a different role. His job was sitting on the foreign affairs committee deciding whether Israel should receive more advanced F-35 fighters or the less sophisticated F-15’s. He was assigned the role of Rep. Ed Markee (D-MA), who held many of Frey’s personal views.
“My own values are pretty liberal,” Frey said.
Frey, who described politics as his passion, heard a pitch from AIPAC before going into a committee meeting. He was intrigued by the lobbyist but discounted some of her views as well.
“She was very clear explaining what she would like, but you have to dilute what she says,” Frey said.
While the appropriations committee had a tight vote, foreign affairs approved the F-35’s by a voice vote.
Other students have already worked on issues with their municipal governments such as Alex Gordon of Highland Park. Buffalo Grove Chris Anderson and William Patino have done the same.
Anderson, a Buffalo Grove High School senior, and Patino, a junior, worked with their village to ban texting while driving. They came to see what things might be like on a national level. They, too, learned the work was hard.
“We had to compromise a lot,” Anderson said, echoing the lesson many of his colleagues took away from the event. “We couldn’t get everything we want.”
Gordon, a 13-year-old Highland Park High School sophomore, developed a volunteer snow shoveling program for seniors and people with disabilities in his community. After working with Highland Park’s Department of Public Works to arrange his program, he was fascinated by the firsthand view of the federal government.
“You get to see all the back and forth you don’t see on C-SPAN,” Gordon said. “You are very busy in committee dealing with bills.”
Gordon was also cast in a role—Rep. Charley Bass (R-NH)—where his personal values clashed with the assignment. Gordon took the time to learn a little about Bass before casting votes.
“He believes in clean energy and so do I,” Gordon said. “I disagree on a lot of stuff [with him].”
More often than not, Gordon found himself voting based on his own values.
The trouble with keeping in character
Josh Sushan, a Stevenson junior from Vernon Hills, was another student who found himself abandoning the views of his assigned member. He was given the role of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY).
“He is looking for things for the city,” Sushan said of Rangel from New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. “I felt I had to vote more for the country.”
Kinsley Bushonville, a New Trier junior from Winnetka, was another participant who took the lesson of hard work and conciliation away from the event. Her group was assigned the task of reducing the federal budget.
“We had to compromise a lot,” Bushonville said. “We [the Republicans] started at $15 billion and they [the Democrats] started at $75 billion. We agreed on $35 billion.”
Bushonville was assigned the role of one of the more prominent House Republicans, Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), an outspoken critic of the Obama administration. While Bushonville is an active member of New Trier’s Republican Club, she also followed her conscience more than the views of Bachmann.
“She wants to cut too much,” Bushonville added. “She’s too far to the right.”
Lake Forest High School freshman Nicole Hensel was another student cast in an unfamiliar role. Raised in a Republican home, she was assigned the role of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), the newly minted chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Hensel tried to step into Schultz’s shoes but found it “very difficult.”
At the end of the day, Hensel was able to reach a compromise on an education proposal with her colleagues.
“The Republicans were passionate about technology and the Democrats were focused on economics,” she said.
One person who found her assigned role easier was Highland Park High School sophomore Alexa Soren. She played Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY).
“I’m a Democrat myself,” Soren said.
Part of Highland Park’s Congressional Debate program, Soren attended the session to learn more about the practical workings of Congress after the research efforts of her school activity. She, too, was challenged.
“Compromising with everybody was hard,” Soren said. “The programs are good but you have to pay for them.” She sat on the ways and means committee. Her task was to find a way to pay for the programs.
When the day was over, Folino said she was pleased with the event. She thought the students were a diverse group representing the overall values of the 10th Congressional District, which Dold represents.
“The students came away with a good understanding of what Congressman Dold experiences deciding how to vote on legislation,” Folino said. “The makeup of the group was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. They learned fairly quickly that in order to move legislation forward compromise is often necessary."