A Tradition Lives: Congress!

By: Jesse Blumenthal | Apr 02, 2010 | 262 Views News, Opinion |

Tradition is on all of our minds, lately. Fountain parties, TNCs, and Madrigals are all well and good, but CMC has other traditions worth keeping, celebrating, and talking about. One is distinctly political, and occurred just this week. For over 30 years, professors from the 5Cs have had their students compete against each other in a simulated Congress.[i]

The concept is pretty simple, on its face. Each spring, at least two professors at two of the Claremont Colleges teach a course on the United States Congress. Each student in the courses plays a Senator. The classes meet in the evenings for a State of the Union Address, gather as committees to draft and report out legislation, and pass at least two bills during a floor session. This year Pomona students, representing the Democrats, faced off against Claremont McKenna Republicans in a test that made the healthcare struggle feel brief.

These colors always run

To be fair, the simulation has never been easy to execute. Just imagine putting a couple dozen type-A personalities, who are politically obsessed, in close quarters for four days. Havoc usually ensues. Just last year, ‘President Obama’ was locked in a bathroom and Harry Reid was ousted as majority leader. Another year, when the students were particularly dull, the faculty members (or ‘Simulation Gods’) decreed that the North Koreans had nuked an oil pipeline in Alaska.

This year’s simulation stayed true to Senate-style. The Senate was supposed to meet at 6:30 on Thursday to begin its floor session, and only two and a half hours later… nothing. At this point, the Simulation Gods announced they were “grumpy” and went to encourage the minority party, whose meeting had delayed the simulation, to venture forth and begin. Ultimately, the Simulation Gods managed to cajole the Senate into action through the use of their “capricious” power (their word, not mine), and by doling out proxy votes.

Things got interesting around 9:15, when Tea Party protesters stormed the Senate floor chanting “Kill the bill!” and “Down with problems!” Rowdy screams and chants of “USA!” and “The South will rise again” could be heard from a crowd gathered outside the chamber throughout the night.

Despite the commotion, the ‘Senate’ managed to pass numerous bills throughout the course of the evening, including landmark legislation such as “Subsidies for America’s Future,” which Senator Franken was overheard complaining about as “something we’ve never seen or heard of before.” Other measures considered included funds for clean coal and nuclear technology. An unusually grumpy Senator Harkin was overheard saying “I just don’t trust them,” presumably in reference to Republicans. So, much like the actual Senate, personal animosity played a role in the functioning— or lack thereof— of Claremont’s Senate.

Simulations are notoriously difficult to run well. Professor David Menefee-Libey (Congress God from Pomona) said, “I didn’t believe in this when I came here in 1989.” Past simulations he had participated in were “hokey,” but this simulation has a lot of merit. “I have alums who come back 20 years later” because of this simulation. It is “one of the most powerful educational experiences.”

Despite the quirky nature inherent in any simulation, the event provides a unique learning experience far closer to reality than most people would like to admit. In 1996 the ‘Senate’ passed a welfare reform bill which resembled the bill that President Clinton had vetoed the year before. During the debrief, Professor Menefee-Libey told his class that it was unrealistic to think the Senate would pass— or that the president sign— a bill which so closely resembled something he had previously opposed. Four months after the Claremont Senate passed welfare reform, the United States Senate followed suit, passing a bill that would become one of President Clinton’s signature accomplishments.

Claremont’s Congress is filled with the same indulgent pettiness, personal vendettas, and unavoidable distrust you might find roaming those marble halls in Washington, D.C. But this is not an extended soap opera— though it may seem like that at times. On what other college campus will you overhear students arguing passionately about the interpretation of Riddick’s Rules of Senate Procedure?

Assigning grades for such an endeavor, where secret deals are the norm and there is so much information to track, is a difficult task. At Pomona, students “don’t really get credit” for the simulation, according to Professor Menefee-Libey. But CMC’s Professor Pitney uses a three-pronged approach. First, Pitney “triangulates” information through observation and student leaks. He then assigns a paper on their simulation experiences, and on lessons learned. Finally, he uses anonymous peer evaluations, asking students to determine who performed the best.

Studying Congress, as if it did not have those features, defeats the point. Congress is not an abstraction, or a textbook creation for a comparative government class. It is a kingdom with 535 chiefs–and no, wiseass, D.C. and Guam don’t count. You cannot begin to understand Congress, just as you would be lost during the simulation, without learning the personalities and the politics of the players involved.

Indeed, as time has passed, life has begun to imitate art. Adam Kokesh CMC ’07 and Craig McPherson CMC ’06 are both alums of the simulation, playing Ted Kennedy and Pat Roberts respectively. Both are currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congress with Professor Pitney remains the best class I have taken in my three years at CMC. The class is what it is in large part because of the simulation. So while you and your friends may well be worried about the State of TNC, consider for a moment the State of the Nation (both real and imagined). Consider the impact that practical learning can have on your college experience. Consider taking Congress.



[i] Editor’s Note: The author is a huge political nerd who really enjoyed crushing Pitzer last year, as Senator Mitch McConnell (R-CMC).

About the Author

Jesse is a Senior at Claremont Claremont McKenna College, majoring in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics (PPE) and Government. He currently holds one of the best jobs on campus while living in the Student Apartments.

  • Charlie Sprague

    Portraying Chuck Hagel two years ago was so much fun. Get to be the wild card and f**k with both parties.

  • Charlie Sprague

    Portraying Chuck Hagel two years ago was so much fun. Get to be the wild card and f**k with both parties.

  • Pat
  • Pat
  • Nirant Gupta

    “This year’s simulation stayed true to Senate-style. The Senate was supposed to meet at 6:30 on Thursday to begin its floor session, and only two and a half hours later… nothing. At this point, the Simulation Gods announced they were “grumpy” and went to encourage the minority party, whose meeting had delayed the simulation, to venture forth and begin. Ultimately, the Simulation Gods managed to cajole the Senate into action through the use of their “capricious” power (their word, not mine), and by doling out proxy votes.”

    This is almost completely inaccurate. The sim was supposed to start at 6.30 but everyone agreed to begin at 7.30. The meeting that delayed proceedings was not a meeting of Republicans, but a meeting between myself, Heath Hyatt and Andrew Grimm (later Cori Williams) and three leading Democratic Senators in order to construct a Unanimous Consent Agreement to proceed due to shenanigans pulled at Wednesday night’s committee meeting by Democrats [ http://claremontfactor.blogspot.com/2010/04/breaking-boxer-apologizes-for.html ].

    Furthermore, the UCA was agreed to before anyone constructing the UCA had heard any news from either professor. Nobody was “cajoled” – an agreement was struck before any discussion between the negotiators and the professors took place.

    I understand that portrayal of the 2010 simulation wasn’t really the point of this post, but just wanted to clear up those inaccuracies.

    • Simulation Participant

      from someone else who was there, jesse’s description is 100% accurate. party leaders couldn’t get their shit together and wasted everyone else’s time negotiating something that should have been done earlier in the day. as jesse points out, the delay was the minority party’s fault, as the minority party sat there negotiating so-called deals and seeking retribution for boxer’s shenanigans. both professors did eventually have to step in and tell party leadership to get the show on the road.

    • A.L. Alexander

      Oh My God. The simulation is done. Get over yourself.

      • Casey M.

        I second.

  • Nirant Gupta

    “This year’s simulation stayed true to Senate-style. The Senate was supposed to meet at 6:30 on Thursday to begin its floor session, and only two and a half hours later… nothing. At this point, the Simulation Gods announced they were “grumpy” and went to encourage the minority party, whose meeting had delayed the simulation, to venture forth and begin. Ultimately, the Simulation Gods managed to cajole the Senate into action through the use of their “capricious” power (their word, not mine), and by doling out proxy votes.”

    This is almost completely inaccurate. The sim was supposed to start at 6.30 but everyone agreed to begin at 7.30. The meeting that delayed proceedings was not a meeting of Republicans, but a meeting between myself, Heath Hyatt and Andrew Grimm (later Cori Williams) and three leading Democratic Senators in order to construct a Unanimous Consent Agreement to proceed due to shenanigans pulled at Wednesday night’s committee meeting by Democrats [ http://claremontfactor.blogspot.com/2010/04/breaking-boxer-apologizes-for.html ].

    Furthermore, the UCA was agreed to before anyone constructing the UCA had heard any news from either professor. Nobody was “cajoled” – an agreement was struck before any discussion between the negotiators and the professors took place.

    I understand that portrayal of the 2010 simulation wasn’t really the point of this post, but just wanted to clear up those inaccuracies.

    • Simulation Participant

      from someone else who was there, jesse’s description is 100% accurate. party leaders couldn’t get their shit together and wasted everyone else’s time negotiating something that should have been done earlier in the day. as jesse points out, the delay was the minority party’s fault, as the minority party sat there negotiating so-called deals and seeking retribution for boxer’s shenanigans. both professors did eventually have to step in and tell party leadership to get the show on the road.

    • A.L. Alexander

      Oh My God. The simulation is done. Get over yourself.

      • Casey M.

        I second.

  • http://claremontconservative.com Charles C. Johnson

    People take this stuff way too seriously. Grow up.

  • http://claremontconservative.com Charles C. Johnson

    People take this stuff way too seriously. Grow up.

  • Oh come on

    UNINTENTIONAL IRONY FTW

    • Haha

      +1

  • Oh come on

    UNINTENTIONAL IRONY FTW

    • Haha

      +1

  • bigchris1313

    It is difficult for those who have not been through the Congress Simulation to understand how utterly real it becomes. Professor Pitney warns the class about taking the red pill and tumbling down the rabbit hole weeks before, but you can’t really understand the reality of the Simulation until it begins: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Simulation is. You have to see it for yourself.”

    I portrayed HELP Committee Chairman Senator Ted Kennedy in the 2007 Simulation. I’m not going to bother explaining the ludicrously in-depth and time-consuming work that makes the simulation so real, but suffice it to say that the level of immersion is sufficient to establish a substitute reality for four days. The final night of committee markup on Wednesday is typically the most heated. When Professor Pitney warns that tensions will rise to the point of violence, he’s not joking. It was only the rational, calming words of Senator Clinton that kept me–in a rage–from appointing Max Hodge Sergeant-at-Arms and asking him to remove Senator Coburn from the committee chamber by force (admittedly out of character–even for Senator Kennedy). And anyone who knows Max Hodge understands how violent such a forced removal could have been.

    The floor session is absolute madness. It’s not quite as in character as Tuesday’s hearings and Wednesday’s markup, but emotions remain extremely tense. The yearly attempts to kidnap or otherwise rid the chamber of a few of the opposition are only the tip of the iceberg. The 2006 simulation featured a Pomona Democrat introducing a relatively non-controversial bill in tears late in the evening, breaking character and begging for passage from his fellow students because of all the work he had put into it. CMC’s Republican Caucus responded by crushing it with a party-line vote. That same evening, just after midnight as it became Caesar Chavez Day, CMC Republicans amended the title of an extremely restrictive immigration bill to “The Caesar Chavez Memorial Immigration Act,” the amendment’s author stating (tongue-in-cheek) something along the lines of, “in recognition of labor organizer Caesar Chavez and his many impressive achievements.”

    And much like the Matrix, once you’ve been through the Simulation, you can’t go back to the way things were–but if you could, would you really want to? You will see Simulation veterans around campus and often you won’t remember their names–if you ever knew them at all. Rather, you’ll remember them as Senator X, President Y, or Secretary of Defense Z. You will reminisce about the Simulation with those you served with, and you’ll compare notes to Simulation vets from other years. You may even act as a witness, journalist, or lobbyist–art imitating life?–in further Simulations. But everyone who’s served in a Simulation understands how real and (literally) awesome it is. It remains the best class I took at CMC, and it epitomizes the ideal of a small liberal arts class that does what a large university course cannot.

    PS: Senator Coburn got what was coming to him when he arrived drunk and belligerent at the post-Simulation after-party. While at least half the students in the class–both male and female–wanted to punch him in the face, only one had the honor to do so. Of course, the identity of that Great Patriot must remain secret to all, save those were there.

  • bigchris1313

    It is difficult for those who have not been through the Congress Simulation to understand how utterly real it becomes. Professor Pitney warns the class about taking the red pill and tumbling down the rabbit hole weeks before, but you can’t really understand the reality of the Simulation until it begins: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Simulation is. You have to see it for yourself.”

    I portrayed HELP Committee Chairman Senator Ted Kennedy in the 2007 Simulation. I’m not going to bother explaining the ludicrously in-depth and time-consuming work that makes the simulation so real, but suffice it to say that the level of immersion is sufficient to establish a substitute reality for four days. The final night of committee markup on Wednesday is typically the most heated. When Professor Pitney warns that tensions will rise to the point of violence, he’s not joking. It was only the rational, calming words of Senator Clinton that kept me–in a rage–from appointing Max Hodge Sergeant-at-Arms and asking him to remove Senator Coburn from the committee chamber by force (admittedly out of character–even for Senator Kennedy). And anyone who knows Max Hodge understands how violent such a forced removal could have been.

    The floor session is absolute madness. It’s not quite as in character as Tuesday’s hearings and Wednesday’s markup, but emotions remain extremely tense. The yearly attempts to kidnap or otherwise rid the chamber of a few of the opposition are only the tip of the iceberg. The 2006 simulation featured a Pomona Democrat introducing a relatively non-controversial bill in tears late in the evening, breaking character and begging for passage from his fellow students because of all the work he had put into it. CMC’s Republican Caucus responded by crushing it with a party-line vote. That same evening, just after midnight as it became Caesar Chavez Day, CMC Republicans amended the title of an extremely restrictive immigration bill to “The Caesar Chavez Memorial Immigration Act,” the amendment’s author stating (tongue-in-cheek) something along the lines of, “in recognition of labor organizer Caesar Chavez and his many impressive achievements.”

    And much like the Matrix, once you’ve been through the Simulation, you can’t go back to the way things were–but if you could, would you really want to? You will see Simulation veterans around campus and often you won’t remember their names–if you ever knew them at all. Rather, you’ll remember them as Senator X, President Y, or Secretary of Defense Z. You will reminisce about the Simulation with those you served with, and you’ll compare notes to Simulation vets from other years. You may even act as a witness, journalist, or lobbyist–art imitating life?–in further Simulations. But everyone who’s served in a Simulation understands how real and (literally) awesome it is. It remains the best class I took at CMC, and it epitomizes the ideal of a small liberal arts class that does what a large university course cannot.

    PS: Senator Coburn got what was coming to him when he arrived drunk and belligerent at the post-Simulation after-party. While at least half the students in the class–both male and female–wanted to punch him in the face, only one had the honor to do so. Of course, the identity of that Great Patriot must remain secret to all, save those were there.