This article was written by Aniket Kesari, the Executive Director of Rutgers Model Congress. This article also serves as the kick-off article for Best Delegate coverage of Model Congress. Here’s a list of Model Congress conferences for those who are interested.
The Model Congress Difference
Going into my sixth year on the Model UN circuit, first as a delegate in high school and now as a staff member, I continue to be amazed at the educational value and positive impact it has on thousands of students around the world. When I attended Model UN conferences in high school, a frequent topic for discussion was each student’s favorite conference on the circuit. My answer to this question was a bit unorthodox: Rutgers Model Congress. Needless to say, I left quite a few heads scratching.
Model Congress is not only quite compatible with all of our notions about Model UN; it expands and enriches the traditional MUN experience. I do not see why there is a split between the two, and in fact I think utilizing their differences can actually enhance the depth and quality of debate on the circuit. One of my dreams is to increase awareness for Model Congress and bridge the gap between it and Model UN; I know that participating in both has shaped my life in tremendous ways and I can only imagine that this combination can have the same effect on students across the circuit. As a disclaimer, I do not claim to have comprehensive knowledge about all Model Congress simulations, and I can best speak about my own conference. That being said, I will do my best here to faithfully represent the general goals and structures of other Model Congress conferences.
Model Congress vs. Model UN: What’s the Same?
The most obvious similarity between Model Congress and Model UN is that both are mock parliamentary debate simulations. In both cases, staff members plan committees, write background guides on specific topics, and moderate debate for high school students who take on the roles of various political actors. This similarity is the most important because the underlying mission of both simulations is the same: to educate students about public affairs and equip them with important public speaking and social skills.
Beyond overall philosophy, Model Congress also functions similarly to Model UN in form and style. Parliamentary procedure is largely the same, with only a few adjustments. Familiar motions for moderated and unmoderated caucuses, increases and decreases to the speaking times, and points of inquiry/information for speakers are all preserved in the Model Congress format. Students still collaborate to pass written work out of committee after hours of debate over the course of a weekend. In general, students and advisors accustomed to MUN would find that much of their experience applies at Model Congress conferences as well.
Model Congress vs. Model UN: What’s Different?
Of course, if Model Congress was exactly the same as Model UN, I would not be advocating for its tremendous value for the circuit. There are certainly major differences between the two that make Model Congress a unique and valuable experience that strengthens any Model UN team.
The most significant difference between the two is that while Model UN generally simulates the United Nations and participants discuss various international issues, Model Congress simulates the United States Congress and participants discuss various domestic policy issues. While there is certainly some overlap, there are several issues that Model Congress addresses that are rarely seen at Model UN conferences. Topics cover a broad range of concerns including (but by no means limited to) U.S. economic policy, maintenance of the armed forces, and social issues (i.e. abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration etc.).
Naturally no issue exists in a vacuum and many topics have both domestic and international implications. Where the issues themselves overlap, Model Congress offers an additional challenge in that students step out of the role of diplomats and into the role of politicians. Acting as members of Congress, students are tasked with representing their districts (for House Representatives) or states (for Senators) as well as their parties (Democratic or Republican). At first this task may seem daunting, but it is ultimately extremely rewarding because this new perspective will ensure that students learn a brand new approach to forming public policy. As members of Congress, the students are ultimately responsible to their constituents and this adds a dimension of accountability as they act in the best interest of the American people. Nearly every Model Congress also offers simulations of the Supreme Court and executive branch in some form or another for more advanced students, thus ensuring that participants are always kept on their toes.
To enhance the realism of the simulation and provide a firm basis for getting into their roles, Model Congress also emphasizes the passage of bills rather than UN resolutions. Keeping consistent with functions of the real U.S. Congress, students deliberate and collaborate to write pieces of legislation that address their specific topics. Unlike UN resolutions that are often comprised of broad policy goals, aspirations, and recommendations, bills in Model Congress must be concrete and driven toward specific solutions. The students can craft effective solutions because the U.S. Congress has the authority to pass and enforce legally binding policies. This innovation is a stark contrast from most UN conferences and provides a new layer of statesmanship and educational value to the conference experience.
As you might imagine, the committees themselves differ tremendously. In general, Model Congress conferences feature smaller committees relative to a typical Model UN committee. There are no dual delegations, and committees are generally capped at 40 participants at the very largest. House of Representatives committees are analogous to General Assembly committees as they are the largest, Senate committees are analogous to ECOSOC and Specialized Agency committees as they are smaller but still follow traditional parliamentary procedure, and Advanced committees are the smallest and feature non-traditional procedure and scenarios.
Overall, Model Congress provides a refreshing experience that works well with the Model UN circuit. Model Congress benefits from simulating a political institution that is remarkably different from the UN, and this translates to a substantive and procedural shift that challenges students in new ways. Even the most seasoned Model UN delegates will gain something from participating in Model Congress. Whether that is a better understanding of American politics and governance or a new way of thinking about the most effective ways to deal with public affairs, students can enrich their conference experiences by attending a Model Congress conference.
The Rutgers Difference
Each conference also has its own differences, and I am best able to highlight the reasons why Rutgers Model Congress (RMC) stands out amongst its peers. As is the case with our other conferences, the Rutgers staff places a particular emphasis on education through conferences. Before the conference, committee directors enroll in a course in the political science department to learn how to write background guides and receive extensive training to prepare themselves for becoming effective educators rather than simple moderators. At the conference itself, time spent in committee is generally much longer than an average conference, and we supplement the program with various workshops and professional development programs.
The most unique aspect of RMC is that it features a theme that ties the entire conference together. RMC 2013 is exploring the theme of “Constitutionalism in the Information Age.” Constitutionalism refers to the idea that the government’s power and limitations are both derived from a fundamental body of law, our Constitution. The Information Age refers to the telecommunications revolution that has been onset by rapidly evolving technology, the Internet, and social media. Each committee weaves this theme into its two topics. Overall, RMC 2013 places an unparalleled substantive emphasis on technological change and the challenges and opportunities it presents. While many conferences experiment with the implementation of technology into conference logistics, few if any can boast such a relevant, timely, and well developed focus on its implications for public policy, especially as it relates to American governance.
In the House and Senate committees, students will be debating several pertinent issues. For example, the House Committee on Armed Services will discuss the National Defense Authorization Act, and the Senate on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs will debate “Disaster Preparedness,” which is especially relevant to students after experiencing Hurricane Sandy. These committees will follow standard parliamentary procedure, but still provide a refreshing change of pace from other Model Congress and Model UN simulations. Acting as individual Representatives and Senators, students will be charged with debating and crafting specific legislation that follows their state and party policies. To aid in this they have several tools available to them, including the ability to conduct fact-finding hearings just as the real U.S. Congress does.
Students who enjoy crisis and historic committees will also find fascinating choices at RMC. The National Security Agency will explore cybersecurity and actively combat the hacktivist group, Anonymous. The Historic Constitutional Convention of 1787 will take delegates back in time and give them the opportunity to refashion our founding document. The President’s Technology Roundtable will bring together technologists, private corporations, and public sector officials in a special meeting to advise President Obama on the future of technology policy in the United States. Meanwhile the Press Corps will tie together the House, Senate, and Advanced committees by reporting on events throughout the conference.
I am very excited that Best Delegate is taking this first step in expanding into Model Congress. Model Congress provides unique opportunities for students to learn about their system of government and gain some valuable skills along the way. Speaking at least for RMC, I can guarantee that everyone from novices to the most experienced delegates will find something challenging and rewarding at this year’s conference. Whether it is at RMC or another Model Congress simulation, I sincerely hope that the gap between Model UN and Model Congress closes and people in both circuits learn about and gain from the invaluable lessons that each has to offer.