By Francie Grace

Students at George Mason University (above, a field trip to the Capitol dome) can get a taste of the budget-making process by participating in classroom budget negotiations modeled on the U.S. Senate.

"I assume when people walk into my class they have no idea of budgeting, and that they're scared of it. When they're presented with a budget table, their eyes glaze over. This isn't just about numbers - it's about politics as well."

So says Professor Paul Posner of the aspiring policymakers and politicians in his Federal Budgeting class, a required course for students seeking a master's degree in public administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

"There is such a dim understanding of these things, as well as high intimidation and confusion factors associated with it," Posner continues. "Unless you've had previous experience working with numbers, a lot of people are just paralyzed by this stuff. It feels obscure... So any process that helps break it down and simplify things is helpful."

Posner, who plans to integrate the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances curriculum into his course beginning in fall 2009, was able to use one portion of the program immediately: the nationwide contest in which students each semester comment on the federal budget deficit and national debt and take a stand on what should be done about it.

Their opinions and recommendations, done as part of a final exam for Posner's class to apply knowledge acquired during the fall 2008 semester, sparked comments from students in Kansas entering the Students Face Up to the Nation's Finances contest as part of an undergraduate economics class at Emporia State University.

At Emporia, students learning about the fiscal crisis extended their learning through an exercise that gave them a window on the problem according to age group. Generational concerns also surfaced at George Mason, but Posner assigned another kind of viewpoint to center stage.

Students, he says, have a tough time understanding the challenges of balancing the budget "without getting their hands dirty." To make sure that they do, he breaks the class up into groups, each representing a major player in the budget process.

"Every decision we make right now, we're going to have to pay for later," says GMU graduate student Alicia Brickman, who believes learning about the federal budget should begin in high school. "Our generation is going to have to pay."

One group played the part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; another approached the problem from the point of view of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while others stepped into the shoes of the president, a powerful interest group, moderate Republicans or "Blue Dog" fiscally conservative Democrats.

"Basically each group tries to represent their political actor," Posner explains. They have to come up with an initial set of proposals. I give them a defined set of votes. They have to bargain with two of the other groups. After they present their initial bid, they spend the next hour bickering trying to come up with a filibuster votes. I tell them, 'Let's do this again - let's assume you're using a reconciliation process – now, do it [with] under 50 votes."

The result, says the professor, is that the students realize that enacting a budget is a lot more than a matter of spending cuts and enhancements. "The problem is how you get everyone else to agree with you."

"The folks that are role-playing Reid get to experience what life is like for a majority leader: Who does he have to deal with? And what are the challenges, recognizing he doesn't have support from both parties?" says Posner. "They understand filibuster and points of reconciliation, how the veto gives president great potential power and how the president needs to be involved."

"Some of them are able to solve the deficit to get sixty votes. Some groups crash and burn – it is all part of the gridlock," he says. "That's the essence of what I've been doing."

Like many of his students, Posner found the economic crisis underscored the importance of understanding the economy and its underpinnings.

Susan Grossman, who is pursuing a career in government, says her generation has a say in what's done about the budget deficit. "It's kind of the same thing that comes with voting; we have to understand what's going on and turn out [in] record numbers."

"Sometimes you need a timely crisis to remind you of what you need to plan for the future," he observes. "I think the bailout and the disintegration of financial system brought everything into sharper focus. We spent a lot more time on how you define a recession, and what role does budget play? What are the risks? How high can you run up debt before a warning light goes on? How do you assess the risks of these companies going belly up? There's lots of complex methodology that goes into it."

The warning light did switch on for many of Posner's students as they made their way through the numbers, priorities and political horse-trading which together comprise the budget-making process.

"Before I took the class, I was aware of the current situation but not the full extent of what will happen if we don't do something about it," says Alicia Brickman, whose contest essay is entitled "The New Deal for a Modern Age." "I knew that things will get bad, but I didn't realize the extent of how bad it would get."

"There is nothing out there in regular news or on 'The Daily Show' that really explains what's going to happen," she continues. "There is nothing going out for mainstream public reviewing. We need to make [the federal budget] a part of education, beginning at the high school level. Then the information would reach a lot of people so that they can better understand fiscal decisions."

Brickman also feels a call to action. "The role young people will play involves getting involved: trying to find out what's going on and how it's going to affect them... Every decision we make right now, we're going to have to pay for later. Our generation is going to have to pay."

"When you think about the trillion dollar deficit coming up, the numbers seems huge but far away. But they aren't as far away as they seem," says Brickman, adding that she's interested in seeing how the new president handles the long-term issue of the deficit and the debt. "By the time that we're retiring, these debts are going to be huge and we're going to have to pay them back. This is only going to accelerate - unfortunately, this is only the first tidal wave."

Jennifer Dietz, entering the contest with an essay called "The Importance of Education, Transparency and Accountability in the U.S. Budget Process", agrees with Brickman that understanding the federal budget should begin in high school and believes a makeover is in order for the language we use to talk about spending and borrowing.

George Mason University (above: the Fairfax, Virginia, campus), benefits from its proximity to the nation's capital and counts public policy, economics and law among its many areas of study.

"There is a plethora of terminology available when discussing debt, deficits and the budget. The implications of this multiplicity is that the actors in the budget process, mainly those pushing their agendas, are able to pick the terms best suited for their proposals... It should not take a graduate level course to understand the U.S. budget process that impacts the general public," says Dietz. "As the public grasps the extent of our national debt, they will be more inclined to stand up against increased spending."

Even when the pros and cons of funding decisions are clear, clashing interests can complicate the process. Susan Grossman got a taste of that as she and some classmates entered the mock budget negotiations in the role of Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, where the space program is a major part of the economy.

"We were more the 'Who needs to take us?' group - what points are we not willing to negotiate on? That's how we came to the table," she recalls. "With Nelson, when push comes to shove, it's NASA [that can't be touched]. One group wanted to cut NASA and we said 'No.' "

Grossman endorses stronger oversight of government spending, with performance targets and assessments boosting accountability. "Consistently ineffective performing programs should be looked at twice as a means to reduce the deficit," writes Grossman in her contest entry, "The Crisis of National Debt." "Expectations need to be defined clearly and outcomes need to be taken into consideration."

George Mason University Professor Paul Posner works to help students get a handle on budget numbers as well as what it takes to create the majority needed to pass legislation and implement policy.

Grossman believes spending money to stimulate the economy is necessary during the current recession but she advocates an emphasis on deficit reduction during periods of economic growth.

"In good times, like with the boom in the '90s, everything was going well, and that's when we should have saved. But that's when it's hardest – trying to tell people that you're going to raise taxes. You have to say: 'Where am I going to get the most out of my money?' " says Grossman.

"The truth of it is, when you have money is when you need to save it. We all talk about having this rainy day fund for a time when you lose your job, or you have a car payment that all of a sudden comes up. When it comes to federal budgeting, why do we not save for those things?"

Grossman worries about the impact of federal red ink on her own generation. "We will be the people that deal with this huge debt. Our parents' generation might not be able to retire, so we're looking at coming into a job market where we thought we'd move up the chain quickly. But then - 'Oh, wait, the baby boomers can't afford to retire, so where does that leave me?' "

"This is something that affects our day-to-day lives, and that's something that needs to be understood. How is this going to affect me? How will it affect me getting a job now, or in five years?" she wonders. "I am astonished that people don't realize the magnitude of the situation we're in."


This story is based on reporting by Meagan Murray and Bill Hallowell. For more on students learning about the federal budget deficit and the national debt, check out our profiles of classroom experiences at the University of Pennsylvania and Emporia State University.

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