Time at the Well: (Mock) Congress in Session for MCHS Sophomores
by Kathryn Schiliro • photos by Angelina Bellebuono
In preparation, they drafted bills, determined political leanings, learned the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure and wrote talking points in anticipation of their time at the well. When time for convention came last week, they found themselves jumping up, waving their placards and shouting, vying for the attention of the Speaker; interjecting speeches with "Will the Representative yield to a question?"; and debating, sometimes heatedly, proposed legislation with classmates.
In arguing for a bill on the legalization of homosexual marriage, for example, Representative Lydia LaMonte explained her stance on the issue, that homosexual couples "fall in love just like men and women do."
This was abruptly interrupted by "Will the Representative yield the well?" to which LaMonte quickly responded "No," and continued with her speech.
Representative Emily Jones followed LaMonte's presentation, after waving her placard to catch the Speaker's attention, with an argument against the bill, explaining that legalizing homosexual marriage could be a "slippery slope." "After we cross this line, it's all over," Jones said.
With each argument, House Speaker Houa Yang had to bang her gavel to quiet the noise of increasingly vocal opposition.
"You wouldn't think that making a 'fake law' would weigh on you," Executive Assistant to the Youth Governor Elizabeth Rogers said. "But it gets really serious."
And, when gavels finally settled, the Mock Congress passed six pieces of legislation, out of 63 total bills in the bill book, and the Youth Governor signed all of these bills into law.
Morgan County High School sophomores participated in the third annual Mock Congress, sponsored by teachers Amy Saylor, Jim Malanowski and Clark Mays, last Wednesday and Thursday, but preparation for the event began months before the legislature ever set foot in their chambers.
Sophomores took tests in class to determine whether they leaned liberal or conservative. In the Senate, 30 of the 51 members considered themselves liberal and the other 21 were conservative; in the House of Representatives, 145 of the 208 members considered themselves conservative, while the other 63 were liberal.
"One of our goals for this experience is to show students how difficult it is for a bill to become a law," Saylor said, through e-mail correspondence. "We also want students to learn about the process of political compromise. For those reasons, we deliberately structure the House of Representatives and the Senate to have different majority parties."
After taking the test, many students found that their political leanings differed from what they'd expected, according to President of the Senate Katherine Key.
"The test initially showed a lot of students they are not what they think they are," Key said. "It turns out they're not what they thought they'd be."
Parents tend to play a big role in that, according to Key. Mock Congress gave students the opportunity to explore their own opinions and political leanings, hear the ideas of others and to work through issues by debating with their peers.
"When you talk with your parents, I think many of us are reinforced, not challenged," Key said, citing an important aspect of Mock Congress. "When you are challenged, you might get upset, but you have to learn to see from others' point of view. It makes you stop and think about how your views can be manipulated easily."
Parents, as well as the community at large, were encouraged to attend the Mock Congress, and were greeted by literature welcoming them to the event, and explaining the role students were taking while acting as Senators and Representatives.
"Some bills are controversial and it could be difficult for some students to debate certain issues in front of their parents," the note reads. "Know that we have asked them not to represent themselves necessarily, but to assume the role of Senators and Representatives. That takes a certain amount of maturity on their part. In their role they might find themselves debating issues from a different perspective in order to nudge their 'colleagues' to consider different sides of an issue."
"Our hope is to see students become better critical thinkers who are able to look at issues from multiple viewpoints," Saylor said. "We emphasize to the students that they are being asked to play the role of a Senator or Representative. We are asking them to step outside of being a 16-year-old high school student with their own opinions and to approach this as if they truly were responsible for the well-being of the public. Hopefully, this experience pushes students to expand their view of their place in the world."
After it was determined who went to the Senate and the House, party elections determined leadership. "Each party elects a party leader and a party whip," according to Saylor. "The majority party in the House elects the Speaker of the House and the majority party in the Senate elects the President of the Senate."
In the Senate, Key was elected President; Patrick Vernon, Majority Leader; Jacob Atkins, Majority Whip; Crystal Daniel, Minority Leader; Jordan Hartney, Minority Whip; and Anna Wilson, Secretary of the Senate. In the House of Representatives, Yang was elected Speaker; Trent Conn, Majority Leader; Reba McClellan, Majority Whip; LaMonte, Minority Leader; Bryan Hope, Minority Whip; and Rikki Griffith, Clerk of the House. Senior Gary Walker was named Youth Governor for the second year in a row, and was aided by a group of Executive Assistants, all of whom were juniors and seniors.
Sophomores were also working on writing bills far in advance of the convening of Mock Congress last week.
"The bulk of preparation begins in January with getting students to brainstorm ideas for bills," Saylor said. "Students are allowed to write bills about any topic that interests them as long as they can approach it with maturity. They can propose national, state, local or school laws. We provide time for them to research their idea and a template for them to use to write their bill. Some topics seem to re-occur every year (abortion, death penalty, legalizing marijuana, etc.) and usually receive some heated debate."
The sponsoring teachers then work through the 260 bills to narrow them down to between 60 and 70 for the bill book, according to Saylor.
In the Senate, Key outlined the most controversial bills as being those involving the legalization of homosexual marriage, the legalization of marijuana, the legalization of gambling, a bill to lower the drinking age to 18 and a bill to require military service.
In the end, the Senate got through all of their bills. The House, however, did not make it through their part of the bill book.
"Legalizing marijuana took almost two hours," Yang said.
According to Yang, she and Key came up with the schedule for bills.
"We only picked some that would get people fired up," Yang said. "It's 50 percent of their grade."
While all of this debate was taking place Walker was busy acting as Governor, meeting with bill authors, shaking hands with visitors and preparing for the luncheon he hosts each year, not to mention signing and vetoing bills.
And even though he had 11 Executive Assistants, Walker found it important to be hands-on in his gubernatorial duties.
"I like to get involved when I lead," Walker said. "True leadership is leading by example."
Among the most controversial bills that he encountered were those on legalization of homosexual marriage, abortion and, of course, legalization of marijuana.
"Some bills are easier than others to decide," Walker said. "Legalizing marijuana, for example. The Executive Branch was debating among themselves. It was the hardest bill to decide on. Economically, it was the best idea. The country spends billions of dollars a year to fight drugs. So, we wrote down the pros and cons and, after talking about it, decided it was probably the best thing to do."
By the end of the Congressional process, students receive a grade based on evaluation of the bill they wrote, research completed on bills in the bill book, participation in Congress and a "reflective writing assignment," according to Saylor.
Bill writing, parliamentary procedure and debate aside, what's the biggest lesson in all of this? Teaching students how to affect change.
"A lot of times making laws is kind of a mystery," Key said. "And we can't vote, we don't know how things really work."
"This is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn about how a bill becomes a law, how Congress is structured, what the leadership roles in Congress do and how the legislative and executive branches interact," Saylor said. "This hands-on experience ensures that students will carry those lessons for a lifetime."
And make no mistake, public officials did take notice of the event. Madison City Council members Michael Naples and Connie Booth and Morgan County Board of Education members Minnie Peek and Dave Belton attended the event, as did Sheriff Robert Markley, who helped to fund the Mock Congress with a YES Grant from the Morgan County Sheriff's Department. Jordan Chinouth, Athens district office director for U.S. Congressman Paul Broun was also in attendance, and state Representative Doug Holt kicked off the session.
"This year state Representative Doug Holt gave an address to students during the opening joint session," Saylor said. "He gave them advice on what to consider when passing legislation. We really appreciated his presence! His advice was extremely relevant and the students were very impressed that a state legislator would take the time to come and speak to them."
Walker is impressed, but would like to see the Mock Congress achieve even more.
"I would like it to gain more recognition," Walker said. "I want the community to look forward to it every year."
The bills that passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and were signed into "law" included House Bill 18: "An act to legalize gambling in the state of Georgia to individuals 18 years or older," sponsored by Representative Haley Bonner; House Bill 20: "An act to make all fireworks legal in the state of Georgia," sponsored by Representative Malcom Nunn; House Bill 26: "An act to increase the penalty for child abuse in the state of Georgia," sponsored by Representative Rachel Love; House Bill 37: "An act to prohibit abortion in the state of Georgia," sponsored by Representative Kelsey Davis; Senate Bill 7: "An act to require public schools in the state of Georgia to randomly drug test all employees of the school system," sponsored by Senator Hannah Pap Rocki; and Senate Bill 20: "An act to legalize medical and recreational use and distribution of cannabis in the state of Georgia," sponsored by Senator Chris Hunsucker. The award for "Best House Bill" was given to Representative Avery Culp for his penning of "An act to require citizens to pass a political knowledge test before they can vote" while the award for "Best Senate Bill" was given to Senator Katherine Key for her penning of "An act requiring foreign language classes to be taught K-12 in public schools in the state of Georgia." Finally, the "Best Statesman Award" was given to Senator Courtney Perry, Senator Patrick Vernon, Representative Caitlin Belton and Representative Trent Conn.
For more photos of Mock Congress, see the Photo Gallery on the Morgan County Citizen Web site.
Printed in the May 21, 2009 edition.