On a rainy Saturday, several GPPI students gathered to simulate the process of turning a bill into a law. We were divided into three groups: Senators, expert witnesses and Presidential advisors. The bill under consideration was Senate Bill 280, which was designed to create a cap and trade system to address climate change. This participant was a mere Senator all day, but even that experience provides ample insight into the legislative process.
Being a member of the Environmental and Public Work (EPW) Committee, as Frank Lautenberg, I was part of the initial discussion and amending of the bill in question. Following a short caucus to determine the Democratic strategy during the committee meeting, I was approached by the experts we were to receive testimony from in the afternoon with questions for those opposed to climate change legislation and also amendments to the bill. We then consulted as a committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, to determine how we would question the experts in the afternoon. According to the observers we were uncharacteristically democratic in determining how the afternoon’s meeting would proceed.
With the finalized version of the amendments the experts requested, I took a working lunch with a few key Senators to augment these amendments and attempt to make the bill more bipartisan. With amendments and questions in hand, the EPW meeting began.
Some participants rightly took their roles seriously and were prepared with antics and accents to create as realistic a committee meeting as possible. With the experts lined up, it became clear that the meeting was just a theater for Senators to grandstand and create sound bites. While I was fortunate enough to ask a question, it was merely an attempt to provide a platform in support of the legislation.
Following the testimony phase of the committee meeting, we reassembled to discuss and add amendments to the bill. While we attempted to make the bill more bipartisan with some of the amendments, excepting Senators clearly not favored by the Republican minority, votes were strictly along party lines. Two of the three amendments I worked on, one a modified version of an experts’ suggestion and the other a vain attempted to garner Republican support, were passed. Two other amendments came from a Republican cosponsor of the bill.
With the changed bill in hand, everyone became Senators and caucused as parties. In the Democratic caucus, we quickly ensured support for the bill and divided up our limited debate time. While the Republicans took much longer to assemble, we did manage to debate the bill before us. It was clear that we would have enough votes to pass the bill, but it was surprising to see the open disagreement on one side and almost unanimous consensus on the other – one Democrat did object out of character to foster a dialog. When it came to climate change, viewpoints were deeply entrenched and movement from the Republicans only arrived from those in close races or those that cosponsored the bill.
Considering the experience as a whole, it was enlightening to see the function of Congress in a simulation. As the expert who wrote an amendment I helped reformulate said, it was surprising how influential and effective some lobbyist can be in this process. It was also surprising how intractable both sides were; even when compromise was attempted it was almost never enough. The Policy Game was an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday and I look forward to seeing what new scenario will be used next year.