Living the Legislature: Teaching Congressional politics through simulation

Sam Power discusses how he uses a simulation of a Congressional Standing Committee to explain legislative complexity to students.

Arguably the US Congress is one of the most studied aspects of political science, yet I find it one of the hardest to teach. It is for this reason, I decide to teach it through a simulation of a Congressional Standing Committee. Legislative complexity can be a hard concept to outline in a traditional seminar setting.


A hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Image courtesy of Rory Sheehan via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

When teaching Congressional politics we have a few key take home messages – that it is largely defined by re-election (especially within the House), ideology, good policy and party loyalty. These do not necessarily go hand in hand. Indeed, intra-party relations are often just as fractious and inter-party relations. A BBC documentary we ask students to watch outlines how the Affordable Care Act was nearly derailed by a coalition of Democrats – not Republicans. Congress is an institution of 535 individuals with individual concerns.

The simulation is designed to hammer this point home. Eleven students (6 Republicans and 5 Democrats) become the Judiciary Standing Committee debating the ‘License to (Not) Kill Bill’ (that’s two puns in one for film fans). The remaining students take on the role of lobbyists from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The exercise is based on a reported simulation from 1999. It perhaps says something about the politics of gun control that the fake Bill in 2017 is no different to the one nearly 20 years ago. It reads ‘As of the end of year 2017, all persons who wish to purchase a gun must obtain a license from the Federal Government. This will entail successfully completing a written test, background check, and psychological evaluation’. The Representatives on the Judiciary Committee are then required to balance their ideological and political concerns and debate whether to pass, kill or modify the Bill.

The characters of the congressmen and women are designed to create conflict within their parties and to invoke constituency considerations. For example, Representative John Morrison (D – TX) knows the Bill is unlikely to be popular back home, hunts, receives contributions from the NRA and is lampooned on satirical TV shows – there is an ongoing skit called ‘Wait, He’s Still a Democrat?’. Similarly, Representative Emma Craig (R – MO) is an advocate for the rights of mental health patients and has a nephew who has been institutionalised with paranoid schizophrenia. She is, in theory, keen to secure greater psychological testing of those wishing to purchase a weapon.

The debate

The simulation begins with a potted history of gun control legislation in the US. Following this the Committee has 15 minutes to set out their initial position and debate the Bill. I have found that extra information helps to loosen participants up and aid debate. A female student in the most recent simulation was particularly entertained to discover that she was a Mormon father of nine.

Before long, however, students are confidently setting out their stalls. Ben Stains (R – CA), a member of the NRA and vocal supporter of Donald Trump, was unconcerned that his constituency encompassed the site of a recent school shooting and argued that tighter restrictions on gun controls would make tragedies like this more likely.  Meanwhile, Hayley Leaver (D – CA), whose child was tragically shot and killed in a robbery at a fast food restaurant and co-sponsored the Bill (with a Republican colleague), passionately argued the case for restricting the rights to gun ownership.

After the initial debate the lobbyist from the NRA stepped forward and made a strong case for why the Bill was not only unconstitutional but endangered Americans more than it protected them. Further he argued that the necessity for a written test risked discrimination. Rep. Morrison however seemed most convinced by his threat that if he (she in the classroom) did not vote to kill the Bill, then the campaign funds from the NRA would likely dry up.

Indeed, the written test element of the Bill proved to be a sticking point for many. After the lobbyist presentation the Congressional Democrats sensed that by compromising on their ideal version of the Bill and removing the written test element they could secure the two Republicans needed to pass the Bill.

Before the vote, both parties discussed what they thought the best course of action was – the Democrats forwarded the Bill without the written test clause. Their compromise was shrewd, this was enough to swing Rep. Craig, though she (he in the simulation) was wavering until the end. Cries of traitor from (some) of the Republicans was surely unbecoming of the House. The amended Bill was passed 6 votes to 5 with Rep. Craig and Rep. Martinez (R – FL) voting with the Democrats and Rep. Morrison voting with the Republicans NRA contributions intact.


The simulation is designed to show students that Congress, though increasingly partisan, is still made up of 535 individuals who will necessarily bring their own baggage and politics to the table. It is not necessarily the case that because Donald Trump says that he’s going to build a wall or repeal the Affordable Care Act that it will be plain sailing. Remember Obama was going to close Guantanamo Bay.

Furthermore, exercises like this are transferable. The exercise was inspired, in part, by a simulation outlined by Phil Cowley and Mark Stuart which aims to improve student understanding of the role of the whips in British parliament.

The simulation gives students an important glimpse into the complexities of Congressional politics and (perhaps) constraints on the presidency itself. Given his recent damascene conversion to the notion of legislative complexity, perhaps President Trump might like to join us next time?


Sam Power is a doctoral researcher and Associate Tutor in the Politics Department at the University of Sussex. He is affiliated with the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption (SCSC), his research focuses on party funding regimes, institutions and corruption. He tweets @sampower.

This blog was originally posted on the PSA Political Insight blog.

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