Instead of attending their usual classes last Friday morning, Locust Valley seniors in Robert Buonaspina’s Participation in Government course participated in the high school’s 29th annual Congress in Action program. The course is taken by 80 students in three classes.
In Congress in Action, students simulate a Congressional session. Members of the “House” and the “Senate” present bills that are debated and then either voted into law or vetoed. Students volunteer to be either members of Congress, who present the legislation, or the Rules Committee, the body that determines which bills come to the floor.
“A big chunk of our course really focuses on civic responsibilities and Congress in Action, so they’ve been working on bills for about a month and a half now,” Buonaspina said. “All of these bills that you hear today were bills the students came up with.”
David Ethe, the district’s social studies director, coordinates the event. “The seniors research a particular topic they’re interested in, and then, if they’re chosen to present the bill or rebut the bill, they do so on stage,” he said. “Those in the audience participate by arguing for or against the bill, and then the Rules Committee puts it to a vote.”
Buonaspina said that of the 80 bills the students generate, the Rules Committee selects 10 to be presented during the program. Some of the bills the students debated included a Voting at Sixteen Act, a Stop Distracted Driving Act, an Anti-Death Penalty Act and a Raising the Minimum Wage to $15 Act.
Senior Kelly Barker sat on the Rules Committee for this year’s Congress in Action. “As the speaker of the house, you basically run the whole show,” she said. “You have to copy all the bills, you have to make the voting sheets, you have to make sure people are participating and debating and make sure everything’s under control.”
“I love to watch people debate, and just hear everybody’s opinions,” Barker added. She said the program is a good way for students to learn about and potentially pursue politics as a career. “I think it’s helpful, because they can realize it’s not as simple as it seems, and it’s very thoughtful.”
Ethe agreed. “By doing this program, they keep on top of current events, they research topics, and then they have to publicly speak about it,” he said. “The more they discuss it in class, and the more they discuss it and debate it in this program, the greater knowledge they will acquire.”
Buonaspina said that thinking critically in order to develop and debate legislation is what the program is all about. “It puts them on the spot in terms of their thinking — they can’t really hide,” he said. “To me, that’s the point of teaching, to get them to think critically about an issue, regardless of where it falls on the political spectrum.”
“It’s just a fun activity to get us involved in what people do in their lives,” Senior Caroline Mangan said, “and if [politics] interest us, then we have a good look at if that’s what we want to do when we’re older.”
Buonaspina added, “I wish our Congress was as concerned as [the students] are about the real issues. These guys would make really good future leaders.”