Around 60 junior and senior high school students file into the massive chamber. Staring up at the white oval ceiling, gold moldings and rich, yellow wallpaper, many exhale, “Woah,” taken aback by the magnitude of the Senate chamber.
But this is not Washington, D.C., and this is not the real Senate chamber, but a detailed, almost exact replica on Columbia Point in Dorchester. It’s the crown jewel of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, which opens its doors to the public on Tuesday.
The institute is meant to remember not only the Lion of the Senate, who died in 2009 after a long battle with a brain tumor, but also to educate people about the role of the Senate.
Since Kennedy’s death, many of his loved ones and former colleagues have spoken about the late senator’s deep love for the upper chamber of Congress: its traditions, its history and its ability to craft history-making compromise.
"He felt (the Senate) had such a tremendous impact on the United States and was a real model for many other countries around the world in terms of how a group of people are supposed to be a very deliberative body and to kind of rise above fray and do what's best for the country. That's what he loved about the Senate," said Kennedy Institute director Bill DeWalt.
The challenge for the institute is that many Americans do not share Kennedy’s love for the Senate. Congress began this year with dismal approval ratings — just 16 percent according to a January Gallup Poll.
Which is why the institute’s staff take their mission of outreach and education so seriously. All month, they’ve had student groups from across Massachusetts come in to beta test the exhibits.
Inside The Institute
As soon as you step into the building, Kennedy's imprint is there.
The first thing you see is a giant, polished black-granite wall. On it, etched in two-foot tall letters stretching the length of 20-feet, are the words: "Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat, Massachusetts, 1962 - 2009.”
Behind that wall is the Institute's crown jewel: the 5,500-square-foot, full-scale replica of the Senate chamber.
"The first time I walked into it when it was not even finished yet, I got chills going up and down my spine," recalled DeWalt.
Everything is meticulously reproduced. One-hundred cherry wood desks arranged in horseshoe rows. The raised rostrum where the senators speak. The same royal blue and gold carpet. As DeWalt says, it's as close as you'll ever get to standing on the floor of the Senate Chamber without going to Washington.
"The kids from the schools come in and, like all teenagers, they’re a little bit bored and they’re a little bit, ‘OK, what’s this all gonna be about?’ And they're kind of jabbering with their friends,” DeWalt explained.
“And then they walk into the Senate chamber and you can almost hear this audible gasp coming from people. And all of a sudden there's a totally different, I think, level of respect and interest in what is happening. So it’s a great venue to really get them involved in the process.”
Recently, we toured the Kennedy Institute while a group of students from Sutton High School received a sneak peak and saw a similar reaction. Many students were joking with one another as they walked through the wooden doors into the chamber. And then, a couple of steps inside, a series of “woah’s” escaped their mouths.
Senator For A Day
The heart of the visitor experience is called a Senate Immersion Module. Basically, each visitor becomes a senator for a day, in a full-blown immersive political simulation.
Matt Wilding runs the simulations and acts as Senate President. He comes to the rostrum, bangs the gavel three times and calls the chamber to order. He will be their guide and their Senate historian.
On this visit, the 60 students from Sutton High School are charged with debating and voting on comprehensive immigration reform, an issue central to Kennedy's legislative legacy. As one writer once noted, in the four decades before his death, just about every single major immigration bill that passed through the Senate had Kennedy's stamp on it.
The students begin the simulation, not with a paper backgrounder or a binder of notes; instead, they each get a digital tablet.
There are a couple of technical hiccups on this dress rehearsal — only half of the tablets actually work. But the institute staff members get a brand new set of tablets, and Wilding takes the opportunity to give an impromptu history lesson, which includes two Senate rules crafted by Thomas Jefferson: no spitting on the Senate floor, unless it is in a spittoon, and senators are not allowed to boo when another Senator has the floor, but they may hiss afterwards to show their disapproval. The students take up hissing in full force.
Once the technical kinks are addressed, the students take a selfie with their tablets, and that picture is attached to a randomly assigned profile of a sitting senator. There’s no name, but the students can scroll through the basic facts about the Senator's state, party, background and simplified descriptions of the senator's political stance and constituencies.
For example, you could be a Kansas Republican who is for increased national security, opposes government spending, but supports farming legislation.
The students get acquainted with their political avatars and then they scatter into breakout groups where they debate and select amendments to add to the immigration reform bill.
The Sausage Making
"I was intrigued by the idea of having a dynamic, active, electronically-enhanced experience of what it really takes to make legislation. I always felt that the ordinary person doesn’t get a chance to really see it in action," said Jean MacCormack, president of the Kennedy Institute and formerly the chancellor of UMass Dartmouth.
MacCormack’s plan to make the sausage making of the political process interesting for young people is pretty straightforward: let them experience it.
“They think you just get an idea and you convince everybody that your idea is right and they all vote for it. And it’s a much more complex human process,” she said.
MacCormack said she had already seen the process at work in the dozen or so student groups who have gone through the simulations.
“You have students who are assigned to be from farm states and they suddenly realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, I never thought about this. I never thought there was a point of view that comes because you’re an agricultural state and so you need workers, maybe migrant workers, who come to work on the farm.’ So you think differently about immigration reform and what should be allowed and what shouldn’t be allowed than we do in Massachusetts, because those are not issues that we deal with.
“So we see the students suddenly understanding, ‘Oh, if I’m going to convince you to vote for this legislation, I better understand what you’re point of view is because it’s about finding common ground,” MacCormack said.
“I’m looking for a way that people can understand, ‘How did we get into this gridlock, where the reds and the blues are just caught up in their opinion and they won’t find common ground?’"
The students we spoke with were surprised by what they experienced.
"I knew how it worked vaguely, but in terms of the whole, really getting into it, I had no idea. I didn’t know it was this much work,” said Sutton High School senior, and honor student, 17-year-old Nathan Posterro.
A self-described conservative, Posterro was assigned the profile of a Democrat. He said it was interesting to see how the “other side” works.
“I can see where there can definitely be a clash of interests,” Posterro said. “If it’s taking us 20 minutes to get over an issue, it’s probably taking the actual government 20 years to get over an issue. You know, it’s going to take them a while to find common ground."
Applause And Hisses
After crafting their amendments, the students file back into the mock Senate chamber. Matt Wilding gavels them in and reviews the bill.
The young would-be Senators have an interesting immigration reform bill before them. It would increase worker quotas for science and technology, allow some undocumented immigrants to receive college financial aid and create a biometric tracking system to follow immigrants as they enter the country.
That fingerprint clause is a Republican amendment, and it’s up for debate. Two students approach the rostrum. As Senate rules dictate, the supporting party speaks first.
Senior Matthew Vallaro is playing the role of a Republican from Nebraska.
“New, more advanced technology aids in development of our nation as a whole. These changes will promote jobs, industry, as well as increase opportunities for education,” he argued. “Some may say that if this system is established, that it will negatively affect civil liberties. However, if the citizens are not breaking any laws, then they have nothing to fear. With the passing of this amendment, our nation will expand and grow stronger as a whole."
The crowd applauds, and a few hiss in disgust.
Next, Aaron DiVoll comes to speak, as a Democrat from Rhode Island.
“We agree with this because it increases the technology in which we can boost jobs and help our economy. It will also increase national security, which is an interest of both parties. This technique has been used in a few other countries and has proven to work,” DiVoll argued. “While the immigrants will give up their civil liberties while entering the country, they will have a chance to flourish once they’ve gained entrance into the country."
More applause, and hisses, but the measure has bipartisan support. Now the students have to vote on the fingerprint amendment. They tap either "aye" or "nay" on their tablets. It passes 41 to 17.
Aye Or Nay
Amendments are the easy stuff. The Sutton High students are then asked to vote on the entire comprehensive immigration reform bill.
As the roll call begins, Matt Wilding tallies the voice votes on a giant video screen behind the rostrum. The first six votes are in favor of passage, but then, the nay's roll in.
The tally climbs on the big screen. It's a nailbiter.
After nearly 10 minutes of voting, Wilding announces the result. By a margin of two votes, 31-29, the comprehensive immigration reform bill passes.
The real United States Senate did indeed pass its version of immigration reform in 2013, but the effort later died in the House.
And there the issue remains: no Congressional debate, no compromise, no vote, just a lot of politics. It’s one of the reasons Americans are deeply cynical about Congress — recall that 16 percent approval rating.
In the Kennedy Institute simulation, amendments and reform bills are passed with the tap of a digital tablet. The Senate works. But in reality, many analysts say, Washington is broken.
A Case For Optimism
“We’re pushing optimism as a way for people to reengage. Optimism alone probably won’t do it; you’re gonna have to do something."Jean MacCormack, Kennedy Institute president
Institute president Jean MacCormack said the students are still learning a valuable lesson about the Senate, even if it seems more optimistic.
“What we're saying (is): what are the elements that will make it function better?” she said, noting that only 36 percent of registered voters took part in the last presidential election.
“We can’t let the cynicism of, ‘Oh, you know, there’s nothing you can do. One person doesn’t make a difference.’ We can’t let that be the attitude. So yeah, we’re pushing optimism as a way for people to reengage. Optimism alone probably won’t do it; you’re gonna have to do something.”
That is why, MacCormack said, the end of the exhibit asks visitors to make a pledge about what each could do.
“Because if you’re going to criticize people not doing anything, be sure you’ve at least stepped up to the plate.”
That is the hope, shared by MacCormack and Sen. Kennedy himself before he died: that visitors might get the feeling that it is possible for politics to work.
They might, perhaps, be spurred by the same sense of purpose that Kennedy called upon his fellow Senators to show back in 2007, in one of his last floor speeches on immigration.
“Now is the time. Now is the time to secure our borders. Now is the time to deal with the national security issue. Now is the time to resume our commitment to the family values of people who want to work hard, men and women of faith, people that care about this country and want to be part of the American dream. That is the challenge. Now is the time. This is the place.”
This segment aired on March 27, 2015.