While most Members fled Capitol Hill for the Memorial Day recess last week, Reps. Adam Ellison, Susie Hwang and Jacob Shorter were among a group of dedicated lawmakers grappling with thorny issues such as blood diamonds and the transport of nuclear waste.
Haven’t heard of these “Members,” you say?
Maybe that’s because they haven’t actually been elected but were participants in a weeklong Model U.S. House of Representatives that drew dozens of college students eager to try their hand at writing legislation, holding committee hearings and managing bills.
Now in its second year, the program, sponsored by the American Youth Scholarship Foundation and inspired in part by Model United Nations, brought 90 students from more than 30 states and territories to Capitol Hill last week.
Among its goals, the foundation aims to give students “a sense they can add value to the nation,” said Alexander Kashef, a medical doctor and dentist completing his chief year of residency in oral surgery who started the foundation in 2002.
Judging from the ambition on display last week, these students have every intention of making their mark.
“You watch for my name. I will be a Member of Congress, if not president,” said Hwang, a bright-eyed, 22-year-old political science major from California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.
“I want to know what it’s like to be a Congressman,” said Ellison, 21, who already has served as student body president at the University of the Pacific and currently is the chairman of his school’s College Republicans chapter. By his early 30s, Ellison said he plans to run for Congress in the Golden State’s 19th district and already is mulling ways to stay connected to his future constituents. “It keeps me on track. Every time I come here I feel like my plans are refreshed,” said Ellison, who liked the program so much last year he returned to participate in last week’s events.
Some of these aspiring politicos arrived in Washington, D.C., with back stories so compelling they could launch a Congressional campaign on their personal narrative alone.
Mexican-born Rocio Rodriguez, a 33-year-old senior at Southwestern Adventist University in Texas, immigrated to the United States at age 16 not speaking English. After taking her GED in Spanish, she went on to hold odd jobs ranging from cleaning toilets to customer service before finally earning her associate degree while her Cuban-born husband was serving in the Iraq War with the Air Force. Today, the U.S. citizen plans a career as a lawyer (and maybe someday as a Member) and in her spare time offers free language help to other immigrants while working out of a makeshift office behind a hair salon in Cleburne, Texas.
When it came time to scrape together the money to cover part of the program’s $1,495 cost, workers at the beauty shop held a garage sale and some of the people she’d helped over the years brought in whatever dollars they could spare, Rodriguez said.
Participating in the program gave her a whole new appreciation for how hard Members have to work and for the necessity of cooperation, she said. “I don’t think [it’s] a single person who makes everything happen. … It’s a body, a structure.”
The Model U.S. House program, the brainchild of the foundation’s executive director, Aurelia Figueroa, benefited from the inclusion of several aspects that added an air of authenticity to the proceedings. Hearings were chaired by former Members who volunteered their time — this year’s participants included ex-Reps. Jack Buechner (R-Mo.), Beverly Byron (D-Md.), Orval Hansen (R-Idaho), Ron Sarasin (R-Conn.) and Jim Coyne (R-Pa.) — and were held in actual House committee rooms. Participating students were assigned membership in either the majority or minority, though no specific party IDs were used. The young lawmakers also received Member-style pins for their lapels. And when their bills came to the floor — in this case the Cannon Caucus Room — they followed House rules and were sternly admonished for any deviations by the acting Speaker, Congressional Research Service’s Judith Schneider. There was even a page — in the form of 13-year-old Franklin Mason, an eighth-grader at Washington, D.C.’s Stuart-Hobson Middle School — to run errands and deliver messages.
“You’re pushing the same talk button and speaking in the same microphone” as actual Members, gushed 20-year-old Aileen Boniface, one of 11 students from Virginia Tech who received full scholarships to attend the program in the wake of the mass shooting there this spring. Sitting on the actual House floor during a tour earlier that day, Boniface said: “I was so excited I almost couldn’t even breathe.”
In fact, Boniface added, the program seemed so real she found herself tapping wells of political emotion she hadn’t realized she possessed. “I figured out I’m a Democrat,” she said, adding that she hoped to return to the Hill as soon as this summer as an intern. In the meantime, Boniface said she’d been trying to live up to the part of the respectable, well-turned-out Congresswoman, trying on “every outfit” before settling on a polka-dotted ensemble and even donning pantyhose despite the hot weather.
Just like real Congress, the Model House had an element of legislative head-butting.
Hwang said she learned that the hard way when a key provision of a bill she’d written on environmental contamination was struck after tough questioning by her fellow Agriculture Committee members.
“Maybe I was naive thinking as student Representatives they’d be more kind,” she said ruefully. “It kinda hurt.”
Along with the combativeness of Congress came the inevitable frustration that can come at times is part of representative democracy.
For 21-year-old Shorter, from the University of Tennessee at Martin, that moment hit him about 35 minutes into committee consideration of a bill Wednesday morning that would have required the U.S. government to consult local populations before relocating military bases in their countries.
Right about then, Shorter — who by that afternoon had effected a textbook Congressman’s look of concentrated boredom as he listened to questioning in the House Energy and Commerce Committee room — recalled asking himself: “Am I the only rational person here?”
Then there was that bill that would have offered debt forgiveness to college students with high grades.
“I got in a little trouble for calling [that] bill a convoluted mess,” admitted Shorter, a devotee of free-marketers Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
Standing outside the Cannon Caucus Room on Thursday afternoon as they waited to convene on the “floor,” student lawmakers lobbied each other in support of favored legislation with the intensity of seasoned professionals.
Those opposed to an agriculture bill that would have imposed strict standards on the produce industry, such as Elizabethtown College’s John Bayard of Pennsylvania, decried it as a waste of “taxpayer money.” Meanwhile, supporters, such as Hawaii Pacific University’s Shota Mkheidze, remained adamant that “this is a good bill.”
Then there were those like Virginia Tech’s Jessica Paulson, who took a more light-hearted approach. “I’m going to pass it because I like spinach,” she quipped.