By Sean Southard
Have you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be a Senator? Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the dedication of the bipartisan Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, Massachusetts. Soon, students across the nation will travel to the institute to participate in immersive programs that imitate the US Senate.
The Institute features a full-scale replica of the United States Senate chambers, down to the desks, walls, and carpet. The major difference between the Senate chambers in Washington, D.C. and the replica in Boston is that the Kennedy Institute is fully equipped with the latest smart technology. Students visiting the chambers are given a touchpad with the identity of a Senator (either real or imaginary) and a piece of legislation that they will work on. The students then participate in a mock Senate program that follows the legislative process by introducing a bill, shepherding it through the committee process and debating the policy with one’s party caucus before moving to the Senate floor for debate and a vote. Through this process, the Institute aims at educating K-12 and college students about the political and legislative process in an immersive way.
At the dedication event, I sat with my friend Jacob Abrahamson and we “became” the two Senators from Kentucky. We sat down in the Chambers and watched President Obama and Vice President Biden dedicate the living memorial to the legacy of Ted Kennedy behind the senate rostrum.
Soon afterwards, past and currently serving senators entered the chambers to sit next to us. Jacob and I were granted the opportunity to talk with former Tennessee Senator James Sasser, who served as Chairman of the Budget Committee before President Clinton nominated him to the position of Ambassador to China. Senator Sasser was struck by how similar the room he sat in was to the Senate.
While we were talking, President Obama entered the chamber to encourage everyone to pursue some form of public service. Shortly afterwards Vice President Biden arrived and opened the Senate floor for business, where students recited quotes from John Adams, Edward Brooke, Barbara Mikulski, and (of course) Ted Kennedy about the important role of the Senate in US politics.
Jacob and I, along with a cohort at the University of Louisville, worked on a mock-legislative project for the Institute based upon the Patriot Act. This task required legislative research that examined controversial sections of the bill established FISA courts and allowed data collection of those that wished to do harm to our country.
Though the group consisted of both Republicans and Democrats who held strong political opinions across the spectrum, the project required that we suspend our political views in order to situate ourselves in the zeitgeist of the early 2000’s. Given the context of 9/11 and the early years of the War on Terror (an era that most of us witnessed in the 2nd grade or earlier) we dealt with the debates of liberty and security in 2015. Our group will eventually travel to the Kennedy Institute to see high school students engage with our simulation and wrestle with the issues left with the nation because of 9/11, the War on Terror; issues that still resonate today.
On a personal note, the privilege to walk out onto the replica of the Senate floor was humbling – especially for someone who has served as a both a page and intern for the body. When on the floor of the chamber (in either DC or Boston), one cannot avoid being struck with awe and a sudden awareness of the place where you stand and the idea it represents. That idea was conceived in an incredibly humid meeting hall in Philadelphia, where some of the greatest minds declared a new order for the ages. The United States Senate and its members has a long tradition of working to shape that new order.
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute encourages young people to explore what John Adams called the “colossus” of the Constitution in order to continue shaping that new order of the ages. I’m grateful to both the McConnell Center and Senator McConnell for helping arrange this incredible opportunity.