By Julia Wolf
Nothing quite challenges the idea of civil political discourse as much as putting 25 students with diverse ideologies in a circle to discuss policy. Add in a challenge to reduce the deficit and you are setting yourself up for a lot of debate, and some free entertainment.
That was exactly how we spent the last two hours of our final morning session at The Washington Center. Phil LaRue and Phil Smith with The Concord Coalition stopped by to lead students through a budget simulation. They challenged the students to do better than Congress and the president, which they pointed out would mean doing nothing more than finishing the budget by the deadline. So what if the expectations were not set super high?
Like Congress, we were given too little information and too little time to complete the project. LaRue and Smith both said that is part of what makes the exercise as realistic as possible. They said they hear both complaints from members of Congress all of the time.
Each of the 36 policy options listed on the exercise had a calculated cost impact. Many times, the options were yes or no. Others a list of up to four options were given. Amendments were not allowed.
It was difficult balancing the desires of constituents and what is best for them with the desire to balance the budget. In many ways, it is a trade off with no good options. You can either vote to cut programs and save money, possibly setting back the people who rely on those programs, or you can vote to keep or expand the program, spending extra money that saddles the nation and all of its citizens with debt.
We did come across a number of contentious topics, with the votes nearly split evenly on a few of the programs. For some reason, funding for NASA human space exploration program was a really divisive topic among the Drake students. However, the hardest were the questions dealing with healthcare and social security. Tax revenue would have been a bigger debate than it was if we would have had more time to look at and debate the options.
I noticed myself voting more along party lines the faster we rushed through the options. The time crunch seemed to have a similar effect on the rest of my class as I watched them plug on to finish in time. When we had more time to think about a problem and debate it, the class seemed less divided along ideological lines. There were two or three different programs on the list that actually got a unanimous vote.
In the end, the class came up with a budget that would have cut about 1.3 trillion dollars from the federal deficit.
The exercise made me think about how difficult it is not only to figure out what you think the right decision is, but to do so in the timeframe permitted. It also demonstrated how important dialogue is to creating compromise. Without meaningful discussion, it was all too easy to completely ignore the arguments of the other side.