An Exercise in Reality

Published Feb 23, 2012. By Claire Kowalick.

Some Midwestern State University students, professors and other community members got a chance to play congressional representatives Wednesday during an exercise co-hosted by the Concord Coalition and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon.

The 38 participants broke into small groups for a two-hour period and were asked to adjust 41 government programs in order to create a monetary gain or loss for the country.

The groups represented super committees and made decisions that would affect the budget for the next 10 years. Each point was discussed and decided by majority rule.

Thornberry visited with each group and said it was encouraging to see the gravity participants placed on each situation.

"They really took seriously the consequences of actions for real people," he said.

Participants noted it was difficult at time to come to a consensus about topics.

Thornberry said, "I have to get 218 people to agree with me for anything I want to do, and that doesn't include the Senate and the president."

He said the group exercise was realistic in that it was a microcosm of how Congress works to get things done.

Dr. Jeremy Duff, American and Congress political science professor at MSU, said he conducts a similar exercise where students write their own bills, and he thought it was useful for students to appreciate how hard it is and what goes into implementing a budget. He enjoyed seeing students apply textbook Congress to real-life Congress.

Duff said often people think you can just cut this or that, but they don't understand congressmen worry about re-election, affiliations with groups and certain actions that may cause them to lose an election.

Steve Garrison, international political science associate professor, said people are generally uninformed about how Congress works and he would like them to understand each person's role in society.

For each budget item, personal connections and stories hit home for participants.

While discussing the lowering of education grants for higher education students, one group said it was already difficult for them to get through school. One participant noted that if a person were to go to college and better themselves, they wouldn't have to live off the government.

While discussing Medicare reform, a member of another group shared his experience working in the health care industry. He said reform wouldn't help because at an office where he had worked, the physician would only see one Medicare patient per day and only received 40 percent of the cost of recovery for these patients.

While some groups considered big-picture ideas, others had more concrete concerns.

One budget gain on the table was the removal of one-dollar bills and coins. One student said the government should definitely do away with the coins because they really weighed down your purse.

Another group was thankful coins are still available because they were flipping one in order to make decisions when time was growing short.

While discussing funding for the military, group member Jenna Yoswa said, "It's only $18 billion. The military kicks butt, give them whatever they want."

National Political Director for the Concord Coalition, Phil Smith, has served on the staff of former Rep. Doug Barnard, D-Georgia, (D-Ga.) and the group is currently led by former U.S. senators Warren Rudman, R-N.H., Bob Kerrey, D-Nebraska, and former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson.

Smith noted a silo effect on how information is disseminated.

People funnel down information until it's very specialized to what they are interested in.

"It's the information age, but it's also the opinion age, and everyone has one. We have to understand what is opinion and what the facts are," Smith said.

The Concord Coalition is a nonpartisan group that champions fiscal responsibility and long-range planning for the difficult economic challenges in the coming years. Concord representatives have conducted about 200 budget events all over the country.

Smith said institutions are sometimes reticent to participate in such a political exercise, but recognize its value when they see how many issues facing a political system can be addressed in a two-hour time frame.