Stalemate-Solving Ideas from Branford HS Model Congress Sr. Presidents
No doubt about it, the U.S. congressional stalemate could benefit from some "presidential advice" from the talented senior presidents of Branford High School Model Congress (BHSMC).
The 12 presidents have already succeeded in helping BHSMC bring home 21 total awards from this year's Princeton, Yale and Harvard Model Congress competitions, including six prestigious Gavel Awards. As an added high note, peers from schools around the country elected BHSMC president Spencer Mariotti as President of first Princeton, then Yale Model Congress conferences in November and December 2016, respectively.
Mariotti won the back-to-back conference presidencies based on his campaign and nailing his speech. He then led cabinets where, "...some of the best kids from private schools in the country were under his leadership," said BHSMC founder and club advisor James Petela, who teaches AP History at BHS.
Yale Model Congress 2016 also drew the the largest group of BHSMC conference participants this year (91 of 140 members attended). Having that many of his club members see Mariotti in action at the New Haven campus, "...just inspired them," said Petela.
BHSMC is an extra-curricular club. Each year, freshmen through seniors dedicate themselves to dozens of hours of research, practice and preparation to develop the skills to compete. Members of BHSMC often must face off against students from prestigious private school teams backed by classroom hours and other curriculum support.
This year's BHSMC presidential roster is filled by seniors Mauro Aceves, Dalton Childs, Taylor Chomicz, Rebecca Criscuolo, Julia Howard-Flanders, Spencer Mariotti, Jake McGuire, Jack Nelson, John Perrotti, Sean Williams, Hilliard Wolfe and Therese Ziaks.
The club will wrap up its travel season at 2017 Penn Model Congress (Philadelphia PA, March 29 – April 2). Each conference is held over a long weekend in an Ivy League setting, run by premiere college students who engage delegates in hours of debate on important issues of democracy, said Petela.
This year's BHSMC journey began as the U.S. Presidential election was in the home stretch. The election and current events in Washington, D.C. have played into conferences, with leaders often challenging students to stretch the bounds of their own personal convictions. Some even got a taste of what it's like to have to stick to party lines, no matter what.
Mariotti, who won the Princeton and Yale presidencies as a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), was selected to join the Republican National Committee (RNC) at Harvard Model Congress (Boston, MA, Feb. 22 – 26). In defending the RNC's platform on Social Security reform, Mariotti went on to win a prestigious Gavel Award, his third this year.
"It turned out well in the tangible sense; but it was really a challenge to put myself in those shoes," said Mariotti. "I actually thought it had a pretty corrosive effect on the discourse; in terms of what Model Congress is supposed to be about. Obviously, there's a lot to be said about gaining perspective, so you can see where someone else is coming from."
But in this case, that meant advocating for policy, no matter the substantive effect, he said.
"Literally all the research that I looked at leading up to it and during it indicated that our specific plan was similar to the plan that President Bush put out in 2005; and would have increased the cost of the program rather than decrease it," said Mariotti. "So you have that pragmatic consideration; and no matter what the other side said, I had to defend it. My job was just to spin anything so long as it was favorable."
"I think everybody had a little bit of a lesson in the way congress works," at conferences this year, added Nelson. As for his take on what's causing the congressional stalemate at the nation's capital, Nelson suggested, "... if we had a much more an insightful presidency, maybe we wouldn't be in the situation we are right now."
For his part, "I'm surprised it's going as well as it is going," McGuire commented. "Not that it's gone well, but I'd thought it would go worse. I guess the stalemate is better than more terrible things happening."
Personally, the 12 BHSMC presidents support several different ideologies, from a self-described "Social Democrat" to a "Moderate Conservative."
Through his committee work at Harvard this year, Marriotti said he's gained some insight on what it may be like for those members of U.S. congress grappling with supporting policy despite personal convictions.
"It kind of makes the discussion devoid of your beliefs," Mariotti said, adding, "I've always thought of Model Congress as a way to understand yourself and how to articulate your beliefs, and how to respond to other people's concerns and maybe change your beliefs."
That, in a nutshell, is what BHSMC has taught its members since 1994, under the leadership of Petela. It's also what makes the divide in D.C. so hard for these presidents, and many others in their generation, to watch.
"In Model Congress, you're willing to hear more opinions and work together to actually make something that solves both sides of the story," said Howard-Flanders. "No one's ever going to be completely satisfied; but I think, as teenagers, we see something that's maybe more common sense, rather than what lawmakers see. I think it's going to have an impact on this new generation, that we're seeing this divide first-hand."
"I think the division that we have right now could almost be a benefit to what we see in the future," added Childs. "Because we see such contrast right now, as we're thinking about who we're electing in future elections, we may want people that will work together and actually make positive progress in this country. Because either way, if you're conservative or you're liberal, you want to work together at some point."
This year's BHSMC research and travels have also helped the presidents to tease out some good news about the current condition of the country.
"When I was in National Security Council for Harvard (Model Congress) I met people from abroad and in the United States," said Williams. "I met a kid from Greece, and he actually thought America was doing really well right now, because of all the economic factors showing; like the increased stock market. But he also saw there's a definitely a lot of division in America, and that you could see a clear division among different types of people and their views."
Howard-Flanders, who plans a future in math, said she's become very interested in following the surging stock market attributed to the Trump administration. Chomicz agreed it's a silver lining, and perhaps even an olive branch to help close the divide among disparate beliefs.
"A lot of people in general these days, they have a side and they stick to it; and that kind of bothers me because they can't take criticism about something that someone on their side did, or they can't acknowledge something good on the opposite side that someone else did," said Chomicz. "Like Julia said, the stock market is absolutely amazing right now, because of the Trump administration. But if you were to say that to someone who's very liberal, they can't acknowledge it. I feel like if that continues, there's going to be no progress."
At one of this year's conferences, Aceves experienced how acknowledging different possibilities can potentially change a mind.
"Basically, no one else wanted to speak on the increase in supporting drone strikes," Aceves said. "I said, 'I'll do it, but I don't really believe in that.' But as I was talking about it, I kind of convinced myself. I don't know if I helped people to come around, but as I was up there, I found I was spontaneously coming up with very good reasons why it would make sense."
In December, Aceves was notified of his early acceptance to Yale University next fall. He credits his BHSMC experience with helping him to become a confident, independent thinker.
"I was kind of quiet as a freshman," Aceves said. "Model Congress forces you to develop your own ideas and opinions on issues. Even though we're doing this in a sort of a novel state, everything you do has an effect on your life. And part of that is developing your own ideas and policy."
"Model Congress has been great to help me validate my opinions and make them assured," agreed Nelson. "The people who come out of Model Congress are truly insightful in the fact that they know who they are, and what their views are. Going into the business world, I'll use everything I learned here."
Having a big group of presidents, supported by an even larger collection of vice presidents, governors, junior vice presidents and junior governors has always been part of Petela's strategy for fostering a continuum of growth for BHMC. He said this year has fielded another outstanding leadership team.
"These presidents, just like in the past, have stepped up; as far as teaching and modeling," said Petela. "The leadership and the high quality of effort they have been passing down is empowering, and the level of participation is unbelievable. You couldn't ask for anything more, from an advisor's point of view."
Being a positive role model for underclassmen is a big part of the responsibility of each president, said Aceves.
"Once you become a president, you're in a leadership role, and the biggest impact you can make on underclassmen is to lead by example, by working hard and showing other people how you're supposed to act, especially on trips," said Aceves. "It's really important to know how to behave in the real world, because they look up to you for advice."
"Another big part of Model Congress is gaining your own independence," added Howard-Flanders. "Mr. Petela definitely gives us a lot of freedom, and we don't disrespect that. When we're at conferences, we're there if underclassmen need help, but we're not babysitting. We're showing them what it takes."
Ziaks' advice to BHSMC members of the future is to, "...stand up for your beliefs," she said.
"Find a cause or multiple causes you're willing to stand up and fight for and defend, and stand your ground," said Ziaks. "I'm more of a science person, and I was able to incorporate that into my bill on chemotherapy drugs, and it is my favorite bill I've ever written. I really enjoyed debating that and seeing what people were saying. I'm really glad I've been a part of Model Congress because I've gained a lot of knowledge of the system, and I think it's really important to be informed."
Speaking of which, Perrotti said the take-away advice he has for next year's BHSMC members is not only to stay informed, but to make sure they are forming their opinions and arguements based on fact.
"I think my one piece of advice to underclassmen is to stay knowledgeable and stay up to date. Right now, it's too easy to give up with everything that's happening, and take your news from sources that may or may not be reliable. So it's really important to do your own research," said Perrotti.
For more information on the program, visit the BHSMC website here