As I was designing my honors seminar for this past fall, I had to keep in mind that information that I now take for granted is not all that common outside of Washington DC, especially for undergraduates who may or may not keep up with the national news. My class was divided into about half science majors and the other half a mixture of history, politics, and psychology, so I decided that a good starting place would be to map out the government to provide a common foundation of information.
My props for this unstructured exercise were a large blank whiteboard and several markers. The rules of the game were that I would go around the table, and each student needed to add something to the map. I think I prompted that perhaps we should start with the names of the three branches of government:
The President, Vice President, Congress, Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court were filled in reasonably easily next.
Somehow the Secretary of State crops up early in the game, so that led us to the Cabinet and trying to name all of the Cabinet-level agencies who are headed by Secretaries. Trivia: Can you identify the agency whose leader is not “Secretary of X?”
(Answer: The Department of Justice is led by the Attorney General)
Tackling Congress is a bit more of a challenge, but this component was one of the most important to me since we would be referring to the leadership structure throughout the course. Starting with the Senate, I asked who is the leader of the Senate? “The Vice President!” was the response. OK, good. Now the Vice President generally has better things to do with his time, so who leads when he’s not around? I explained that the President Pro Tempore , who is the longest serving member of the majority party, has the authority in the Vice President’s absence. (OK, so I don’t think I knew that before my year in Washington.)
We then discussed that the President Pro Tempore does not set policy. Instead that is the Senate Majority Leader, whose counterpart is the Senate Minority Leader, who were Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell respectively when we started, although they have now reversed roles. Second in command to the leaders are the Whips. We had a lively discussion about what Whips do. I explained that they counted votes on various issues so that the party leaders would have an idea of whether or not a vote would be successful before it was brought to the floor. “And if people are going to vote the wrong way, then the Whips whip them into shape?” Well, pretty much, yes. It actually comes from the “whippers-in” in hunting, but it amounts to the same thing.
My favorite trivia question involves the Presidential succession.
Me: So, if the President dies, who takes over?
Students: The Vice President
Me: Good! What if the Vice President then dies?
Students: The Secretary of State?
Students: That President Pro Something guy?
Me: Not quite
Students: Senate Majority Leader?
Me: Nope, getting colder.
One brave soul: Speaker of the House?
Me: Yes! Who’s the Speaker of the House these days?
Students: Nancy Pelosi?
Me: Nice try. She was speaker until the Republicans gained the majority. She’s now the Majority Leader. The current speaker is actually John Boehner. So who is after Boehner?
Students: Now the President Pro Tempore?
Me: Yes! Then the Cabinet secretaries in order of the creation of their departments. So if we got all the way down to Energy, we could have a physicist as President!
Students, mumbling: She’s such a nerd.
I went on to explain that this succession is the reason that for any major events which assemble all three branches of the government, there’s always one Cabinet secretary who stays away. That way if some catastrophe happens and the rest of the government is destroyed, there’s still someone who Constitutionally has the authority to pick up the pieces.
Although I’m presenting the game to you in a linear fashion, the students jumped around quite a bit in adding to the map. I was quite impressed when someone offered that John Roberts is currently the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. With help from various classmates, they did manage to assemble a complete list of all nine justices. It’s one of my own personal trivia tests, but I usually get shaky around seven or eight.
We also mentioned Circuit Courts, Appeals Courts, etc. but I’m definitely weakest on the Judicial branch.
We followed with a brief discussion that the state and local governments have similar structures, which allows for the dispersion of power and helps with the checks and balances we learned about in eighth grade.
The final map here looks very straightforward, but our map on the board showed all the signs of being generated more spontaneously and randomly. Still, it was a good review of how all the pieces fit together, and I’ve always loved trivia, so it was fun for me as well.
One of the science majors was privately a bit dismayed by the exercise and said that the amount of politics was unexpected. Well, yes, that’s the “Public Policy” part of the title.