A Tradition Lives: Congress!

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.

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).