At some point in their high school careers, teens learn about how a bill becomes a law and other aspects of how the U.S. government functions, all from a textbook. Rarely do they actually get to experience the legislative process and all of its intricacies in real time.
This is why state Sen. Frank Farry (R-6th dist.), joined by former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, hosted a mock legislature event.
Over 50 students hailing from six schools — Bensalem, Bucks County Technical, Conwell-Egan Catholic, Holy Ghost Prep, Neshaminy and William Tennent — convened at Neshaminy for the program, which ultimately allowed them to be senators for a day.
The event kicked off with an introductory address from Schweiker, who gave students a breakdown of the legislative process.
He praised Farry’s initiative, “It exposes each and every one of these earnest students to the idea that working together and not just understanding the issue at hand, but that compromise is a commonsense approach to building consensus.”
After hearing from Schweiker, participants broke into four standing committees to debate legislation modeled after real bills that have been introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate. Each committee had a member-elected chair, with other students stepping up to serve as sponsors of the respective bills. Staff members from Farry’s offices, as well as former elected officials and government relations professionals, helped guide them through the debate process.
“It was so encouraging to see them so immersed in the issues, developing their own positions and actively engaging in debates with the other students,” said Farry. “The goal of the program is to not only give students a glimpse of how government functions with a hands-on experience of the legislative process, but hopefully teaches them the values of compromise and respect and the importance of coming together for a common good.”
Following a lunch break, the students did exactly that during a mock general session of the Senate, led by Farry. Just like in real government, each of the bills that passed committee were debated in front of the full Senate, received suggestions for amendment and were voted on. In total, six of the eight pieces of legislation moved out of committee and were considered by the full group of senators, with the committee chairmen presenting the bills for debate and a final vote.
One was the Smoking and Vaping Ban in Vehicles With Minors (Senate Bill 6), which would fine those guilty $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second offense and an increase of $100 for every subsequent violation. After the fourth offense, two points would be added to their driver’s license per offense. Though one teen legislator petitioned for an amendment, which would double the cost for each offense, his amendment was objected to. Once other students had the chance to try to sway the Senate to act in favor of or against the bill, a vote was taken and the bill passed.
For the students, it was an enjoyable experience. Andrew, one of the participants, said, “It was pretty fun. It was a lot of different people, a lot of different ages. I was a part of the Law and Justice Committee, so we got to discuss different laws, for example, lowering the drinking age to 18 and different things like that.”
The feeling was mutual for those assisting the students, including Tyler Cooper, executive director, Urban Affairs and Housing Committee. He said, “They can debate bills, talk about things, really get to experience how government actually works and not just see government on Twitter or on the news, and actually see what goes into developing policy, having these discussions about real topics and issues.”
In fact, Schweiker thought the public policy observations and suggestions of the students were so brilliant, they could be considered in Harrisburg.
On hand at the event was state Rep. Joe Hogan, of the 142nd Legislative District, who participated in the mock legislature initiative during his own years as a high schooler.
“You can learn a lot in a classroom about how a bill gets made. This is actually a hands-on experience, learning about it, learning the actual human element of it,” said Hogan. “You can learn the procedural part of it. The bill goes through committee, it’s introduced. But actually learning how you have to work with different stakeholders, you have to modify sometimes the smallest bit of language to get everybody on board, that’s a hands-on experience, and this is the type of thing that’s gonna be very beneficial for these students.”
The event closed with Farry sharing the status of the actual bills in the Senate, speaking about the challenges of the legislative process, and the importance of compromise and treating others who may have differing opinions with respect.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org