For five days last week, 150 delegates from 20 states and the District lobbied one another and debated over intricate pieces of legislation, including full voting representation in Congress for the nation's capital.
The delegates were all high school students participating in the eighth annual Convention II, a mock constitutional convention. Among them were 12 students from the District, who failed to get their voting rights resolution onto the floor for a vote.
"This is the real thing," said Christopher Thorpe, a junior at Anacostia High School in Southeast. "It's a great experience to see how the government is run. You learn the different procedures on how to pass a bill, how to fix an amendment and everything--things you don't get a chance to do in school."
The young delegates were lobbied by real-life professionals representing interests of gay rights organizations, gun control advocates and pro-life groups. Each delegate had meetings with the members of Congress from their home states and districts.
Convention II, the only outside organization allowed to meet on the floor of the House, where participants wound up the five-day convention on Saturday, is run by Southeastern University's Center for the Study of Federalism, based in the District.
The program was born eight years ago in the mind of New Rochelle, N.Y., politician and lobbyist Boris Feinman, who "got fed up and annoyed with the stupidity of most people about their form of government and how it works," he said. He set out to put excitement back into learning the political process.
Feinman said Convention II is "an experience the students will remember for years to come." It is not only an exercise in governmental procedures, he said, but a lesson in human relationships.
"We've got all kinds of people in there, from the coal miner's kid to the Harvard-Ivy League type. But at the end of a four-day pressure-cooker session here, you'd be surprised at how these kids respond. They'll sling away verbally at each other. But what comes out is a beautiful understanding of each other based on practical political dealings."
The D.C. Board of Education began taking an active role in the program in l974, immediately after it was brought to the attention of then-school superintendent Vincent Reed. The school board pays for a maximum of 12 high school students to participate. Six of the 12 District delegates this year were from Calvin Coolidge High School, and the rest from Anacostia High School. The only requirements for participation are that the student have an interest in the program and be a junior or senior in high school.
Each delegation to the convention must propose an amendment to the Constitution and try to get it passed through legislative procedures.
One amendment that did make it to the floor and passed was a proposal that would allow the American voting public to elect the president directly, instead of through an electoral college.
At Convention II five years ago, delegates to the mock Congress adopted an amendment to give the District full voting representation in Congress, which would give the city two voting senators and one voting congressman. Three weeks later, the real Voting Rights Amendment sponsored by D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy won approval in the House and subsequently went on the win approval in the Senate. Ratification by 28 more states is needed by September 1985 for the amendment to become part of the Constitution. Ten states have already voted in favor of ratification.
Members of the D.C. contingent this year said they came up against substantial opposition to the same amendment, possibly an indication of what is happening in the real Congress. Whether the proposal would have passed was unknown, because the convention adjourned before it was voted on.
"We were all disappointed because we stayed up all night working on our arguments to support the amendment," said Anacostia delegate Tanya Turner. "And we were even approached by some delegates from other states who were previously opposed to the amendment who asked if we needed any help on the floor debating the proposal."
Turner said she felt the amendment would have passed had it reached the floor. But the District students are proud that the proposal made it through committee, she added.