20 Minute Legislature

I’m a big fan of the twenty minute simulation.  One of the big hurdles to using sims in the classroom is the perception that they take a lot of preparation on the part of the professor and a lot of class time to do properly. But sims do not need to be a big production in order to be successful.

Take for example my 20 Minute Legislature, an adaptation of an exercise found in the endlessly useful Instructor’s Manual for Ginsberg, Lowi, and Weir’s We the People.  I should note that I don’t use their text, but this is the best guide I’ve found in terms of suggesting discussion questions and activities.  Its a great go to reference, and deserves its own post.

Basically I give students five categories for spending a $100 billion national budget: Education, Transportation, Health and Welfare, Environmental Protection, and Defense.  They must budget each of these areas, and cannot give equal amounts to each.  They have 2 minutes to do so as individuals, and then based on their ranking of each area, I assign them to ‘committees’ which then have three minutes to come up with a committee budget for the legislature to consider.  Proposed budgets get placed on the board.  The students then have five minutes to persuade others to vote for their budget bill, making whatever promises and exchanges they please.  The final vote is held, and then we debrief for the last 7 minutes or so.

I’ve tried this a couple of times with good success.  I served as the Rules Committee (and the President) and mandated that there were no amendments allowed, that no one could vote for their own bill (in unequally sized groups this was important), and that only one bill could pass.  I also determined the order the bills were discussed.  I have played with the incentives involved, offering extra credit to the winning bill’s team and to the individual who’s personal budget most closely matches the budget that passes.  These rules and incentives do matter–the last time I tried this game, no bills passed.

Ultimately whether someone wins or loses is irrelevant.  The game is a quick and interactive way for students to understand the tradeoffs in budgeting, the role of committees in the legislative process, log rolling, and the influence of self-interest (as the authors predict, education always receives the most money).  Students can see that the process is messy and that what they consider to be good bills still need votes in order to pass. As a bonus, you can also compare their budgets with the actual discretionary budget of the US.

The exercise provides a great reference point throughout discussions of Congress and general discussions of politics as “who gets what, when and how” (as the authors note).  It works particularly well at the start of the lesson on Congress, and while I used it in a class of 25 could be adapted for larger and smaller groups relatively easily.

3 thoughts on “20 Minute Legislature

  1. Thanks Michael. I haven’t yet written this one up in paper form, but i’m thinking of doing a paper on ’20 Minute Simulations’ (which would include this one) for this year’s TLC.

  2. I second Michael’s suggestion- i think this is a great idea. I have done something similar but it is much more complex. This seems like i achieves similar results with a lot less effort.

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