Learn by doing: A bill passage simulation for Intro to American Politics students

Renée Van Vechten, Professor of Political Science, University of Redlands, renee_vanvechten@redlands.edu

Why lecture when your students can practice to learn? Realizing that lecturing alone is the least effective method for teaching “how a bill becomes a law,” I regularly incorporate a three-day bill passage simulation in my Introduction to American Politics class so that students learn more about a policy of interest, remember the steps in the lawmaking process, and get a taste of power—as wielded by the House majority party. We usually limit the process to the House alone but the Senate process can be added if time permits. Along the way, action is interspersed with short lectures or explanations about the process and key terms (outlined in lecture slides).

Preparation Stage

Choose a bill. We begin at least one class period ahead of the scheduled simulation by generating a list of possible bills. What does the class want to legislate? It’s best to ask students first to think about what kind of law they would enact if they had the power to do so, and tell them you’ll soliciting ideas for a bill that the entire class will consider. The guidelines are simple: (a) it needs to be short, which excludes complex health care reform and farm bills for example, as ideally the proposal should fit onto one page; (b) it should be an issue that will make it through the process, i.e. has the support of the majority party (we’ve fudged this in the past, given their strong preferences).

I’ve found that written suggestions yield more variety than verbal suggestions. If you’d like your students to get to know the website where current bill files are available and past bills are archived (https://www.congress.gov/) you could assign the task of finding an actual bill for consideration. In a smaller class, you can collect and quickly organize their suggestions and have students vote on them. With a larger class, you may need to organize their suggestions and return with a list of

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

possibilities for a vote. If few ideas are flowing, you might prompt them with a short list. Many issues can help promote clearer understanding of federalism and the power Congress exerts over state affairs through grants and unfunded mandates (see the short list of bills my students have considered over the years).

Assign Parties. That same day, divide your class into Democrats and Republicans, giving a proportional advantage to the current majority party in the House. We follow current party divisions. Explain what a caucus is and allow them to regroup into their respective party caucuses. Set aside about 20 minutes for them to get to know each other, quickly discuss how their party would like to approach the bill and consider volunteers for leadership positions.

Prep the Bill. Take at least a day or two to organize your resources. Before the next class you’ll need to redraft the (real) bill they’ve selected or create one quickly. I use a template that contains the usual legal jargon and, using actual bill language either in whole or in part, I formulate a one-page document. Use your best judgment about what to include, such as definitions, subsections, and so on. Vague terms, suspect wording, and dollar amounts can be amended later. Later in class I distribute hard copies with the bill passage process outlined on the reverse, and key discussion questions listed as well—items on which they should reflect throughout the exercise.

Usually I email the bill to students and post it to the course webpage immediately (within a day) so that they can start preparing a position statement, an assignment that’s included in the syllabus. Students may assume the identity of a Congress person or a lobbyist who must make the case either for or against the bill in a committee hearing. The statement must be plausible and evidence-based. All are invited to address the committee in a soon-to-be-held “formal” hearing (a good place for a few extra points to incentivize participation, if that’s part of your approach; otherwise, they may be randomly called).

Day 1

Introduce the bill passage process. By this point in the semester we have already generally discussed the concept of representation, reelection strategies, and how the House is organized. Before the simulation commences, with the help of lecture slides I introduce the bill passage process specifically, starting with the typical sources of bills, the importance of staff, historical rates of bill passage, and so forth.

Second caucus meeting. Next, they break for their second caucus meeting, during which they will select their speaker, majority leaders, and the committee chairs (one for the standing committee and another for Rules). You may opt to choose certain students for those these roles, including those of committee members, as students don’t usually succeed in spontaneously choosing an inclusive set of participants. In caucus, which should last about 15 to 20 minutes, they should also discuss their legislative strategy. Are they happy with the way the bill is written? What changes do they want to engineer? Who should suggest amendments? What are their collective goals?

Bill introduction. The simulation begins with the bill’s introduction. A student from the majority party who claims authorship of the bill puts it “across the desk” (i.e. puts it in the hopper; i.e. hands it to the clerk—the professor—for processing). The bill is assigned a number and given a summary reading, and the Speaker is asked to refer it to the appropriate committee. At this point, as a class we visit the https://www.house.gov/committees list and identify the proper referral. With more time it’s appropriate to explore the phenomenon of multiple referrals and the role of subcommittees; we also discuss the Speaker’s role and majority party’s control over the process. Our classes are 80 minutes long; depending on the depth of discussion, sometimes we are able to appoint committee members and convene the first hearing without delay. The chair (or the professor) compiles a list of witnesses who will appear at the hearing. This concludes the first day.

Day 2

Hearing in standing committee. Students should arrive the second day with a hard copy of their prepared statements for or against the bill. The committee hearing takes on an air of legitimacy when the committee members convene at the front of the classroom and face the audience (witnesses should always be seated). With prompting from the clerk (professor), the chair gavels the meeting to order and calls witnesses to testify for or against the bill, beginning with the bill’s author. Remarks are generally limited to three minutes, and committee members are expected to ask follow-up questions. As committee members become more comfortable in their roles, the questioning tends to become more targeted. If necessary, as committee clerk I may pass a note suggesting a question or a direction in which to take the discussion. A hearing can last as long as there are witnesses and questions that need answering.

In some semesters I have arranged for a final witness or two to appear as “experts”—either a willing colleague, residence life staff members, or others who can bring a sense of realism to the simulation. Although the information they offer can be invaluable, their testimony can easily intimidate students, so it’s important to hold their contributions until last.

Mark-up session in committee and vote. During the mark-up session that follows the hearing, the entire audience is welcome to suggest how to amend the bill. If mark-ups are limited to the committee members only, disinterest among the class sets in quickly. Changes to the bill are tracked on a large screen, and the committee hearing will conclude once acceptable changes are made or the time is up. Here students start to understand the meaning of the phrase, “the devil is in the details,” as passages are rewritten or new language is introduced, thereby changing the purposes or consequences of the bill. After the votes are taken—and the final bill should be acceptable to the majority so that it can get to the House floor—the bill is “reported out” (this step is merely explained) and it moves to the House Rules Committee, which either convenes immediately or on the third day of the simulation.

Day 3

Third party caucus and Rules Committee meeting. The class is introduced to types of rules (basic rather than complex) and recent patterns, and a visit to the Rules Committee website reveals what a package of rules looks like. Although almost all rules are “closed” today with the intention to shut out the minority party, we deliberately allow one or two amendments from the minority party (for the sake of argument), as well as any from the majority. They break for one more caucus meeting and strategize about possible amendments. Sometimes the majority party will have some fun by proposing a change simply to hype up the minority party, or vice versa, but overall the students suggest thoughtful changes because they’re invested in the outcome by this point. The Rules Committee quickly assembles a resolution to consider the bill immediately, designating the number of amendments that will be allowed, time for debate over amendments, and the time for general debate. (A pro forma vote on the resolution can be taken later.)

Floor session. We review yet again the steps we’ve traversed (repetition is essential) and proceed to floor session via Committee of the Whole. Departing slightly from normal procedures, we first dispense with amendments by debating them one by one (votes on amendments are usually held until after the Committee of the Whole dissolves), and then move to general debate. At this point every student in the class must rise to make at least a one-sentence statement explaining his or her position and urge a “yes” or “no” vote. Very large classes may preclude full participation, but a statement can take as little as 15 seconds per person, and this is the time for students to inhabit their roles and make an impassioned appeal to their peers (within time limits).

Following the last statement, the Speaker assumes the gavel, takes a vote, and the simulation concludes. Except when a poison pill has been creatively attached at the last minute, a bill usually passes with applause.

Wrap-up. Immediately after the simulation I explain how the bill moves through the Senate. Later, I allow plenty of time for the important questions students raise about lawmaking generally (usually I ask them to write them down). In turn I ask them to consider how the majority controls the process, the extent of minority party power in both chambers, where bipartisanship and compromise can be found, the importance and roles of different leaders, points at which bills can be killed, and the factors influencing Congress members’ decisions. I also show a short video (one and a half minutes, shown twice) about what Schoolhouse Rock missed in depicting how a bill becomes a law (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QH0Hl31vdF4), which generates further clarification and discussion.

Whereas this simulation hews to the traditional bill passage process, “unorthodox” lawmaking paths could be introduced, and when I’ve had more time, on the night before the floor debates I have inundated my students’ inboxes with letters from “lobbyists” from both sides representing critical interests.

Evidence for the efficacy of this activity can be found in responses to midterm and final exam questions that require students to explain the major steps through which a bill passes to become a law. Almost invariably, the students who miss the exercise or any part of it are liable to confuse or omit large parts of the process from their responses—despite assigned reading that covers it. This foray into policy research also can motivate students to deepen their policy knowledge through upper division courses and internships, and it has helped inspire recruits for my Congress course. I’m certain that a more rigorous assessment tool would demonstrate wider benefits of this active learning exercise, and after almost fifteen years of bill passage simulations, I still highly recommend it.


Sample of Bills Suggested and Considered by Students in Introduction to American Politics

Topic A bill to:
FAFSA Enable use of the previous year’s tax returns to complete the FAFSA form
Drinking Age Lower the drinking age to age 18
Birth Control Ensure timely access to affordable birth control for women
Gun Control Prevent perpetrators of domestic violence from owning firearms
Taxation Tax foods high in sugar and saturated fat
Teacher Pay Increase federal funding for K-12 teachers
K-12 Ed Provide K-12 children with increased access to physical education
K-12 Ed Conduct a study on the causes of deaths related to high school football and formulate recommendations to prevent such deaths, and to promote State requirements for the treatment of concussions caused by participation in sports
Higher Ed Require financial literacy and economic education counseling for student borrowers
Higher Ed Promote higher education through more federal grant funds
Environment Raise CAFE standards for trucks
Drugs Legalize marijuana


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