UW News

December 12, 2002

Simulated Congress imparts real lessons

In the upcoming congressional debate on lowering the drinking age to 18, sponsor Lech Radzimski will argue the change would curb alcoholism and encourage self-control.

Radzimski’s bill has been given a decent chance of passing the House, and if you haven’t heard of it, that may be because “Rep.” Radzimski is not a real congressman — he plays one in a simulated Congress known as LEGSIM that is giving students a vivid taste of political life.

The simulation was created by John D. Wilkerson, associate professor of political science at the Center for American Politics and Public Policy, to enable students to experience complex political action — action that gets so intense, students sometimes take it personally.

“I have found,” Wilkerson said, “that the simulation becomes less artificial and more personal over time.”

“Members” of Congress — Radzimski and his approximately 100 classmates in Political Science 353 — represent districts, serve on committees, introduce and debate bills, and strive to withstand much the same kind of political horse-trading, arm-wrestling and mudslinging that accompany real public service.

In this fall’s LEGSIM session — the third and most advanced since Wilkerson created an early version for his Legislative Politics course in 2000 — barbs zinged back and forth between the leaders of the Rules and Budget committees over what the Budget chairman took to be veiled threats to bury his favorite bills.

House “Speaker” Joel Merkel Jr. — sizing up allies and foes — calculated that his Electricity Consumers Relief Act would stand a better chance if he introduced it in the Commerce Committee, rather than Energy.

And when “election season” (the end of fall quarter) arrives, lawmakers are bracing for a repeat of last spring, when some student congressmen were shocked — shocked! — to find quotes from floor debates taken out of context in opponents’ campaign literature, or to discover on rivals’ campaign posters their votes on certain bills blown out of proportion.

It is all unfolding during the 10-week legislative session — er, fall quarter. While Radzimski’s drinking-age bill has youth appeal, other current bills mirror debates raging in the real Congress, including euthanasia, drug coverage and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Students research each proposal, then jawbone a committee chair to get it on the agenda. Measures costing money must withstand the scrutiny of the Budget Committee, and then LEGSIM adds the price tag to the national debt — forcing lawmakers to come up with spending cuts or new taxes (one way the simulation departs from the real world).

“I’ve learned things that I never experienced in textbook classrooms,” said Speaker Merkel, an honors political science major who is heading toward law school and a career in public service. “It’s the political calculations you have to make.”

This multi-layered intensity has made LEGSIM popular with students, and although Wilkerson created the simulation for his own course, he thinks it also could become popular with other political science instructors because the SQL-based software can be adapted to mimic any state legislature, national parliament or international body.

Students begin by researching and picking a district, then electing leaders. No political parties are assigned, but the lawmakers are free to invent them or join existing ones, and Speaker Merkel indeed sees signs of partisanship emerging as political lineups become clearer.

Unlike other simulations, Wilkerson said, LEGSIM puts all the action — debating, voting, research — on the Web, so legislators can legislate at all hours (with a 24-hour window for votes). LEGSIM tracks bills’ progress around the clock, a technology that also gives Wilkerson and his teaching assistants real time data on student activity.

As to the chances that the real U.S. Congress, will lower the drinking age, well, any simulation has its limits.

To try out LEGSIM, go to http://depts.washington.edu/legsim/  and log in as a guest.