Policymaking Simulations

Policymaking Simulations put citizens in their elected officials’ shoes by simulating the process they go through in making policy decisions – getting briefed, hearing arguments, coming to decisions – using an online instrument called a “policymaking simulation.” VOP has worked with the Program for Public Consultation to develop simulations on the following issues, give one a try. At the end of each simulation, please take the opportunity to email your members of Congress and make your voice heard.

The Federal Budget

Discretionary Budget

You will then be presented the discretionary budget–this is the part of the budget that Congress sets every years–broken into 31 line items (e.g. transportation, education, defense etc.), and will have an opportunity to raise and lower each one as you see fit. As you go along you will get immediate feedback about the impact of your changes on the budget deficit.

General Revenues

Next you will then assess arguments about what priorities should be for federal taxes. Then you will get the opportunity to set tax rates for all of the major taxes including income taxes (you will see what they and can set what you think they should be for each income level) corporate taxes, capital gains and more. You will also get to evaluate newly proposed taxes such as a tax on financial transactions or on carbon dioxide. Once again, as you go along you will be able to immediately see the effect of your choices on the deficit.

Tax Reform

This simulation gives you the opportunity to evaluate some of the proposals in the recent legislation (that did pass) to reform taxes. Some of these overlap with the Revenue section in the Federal Budget simulation, but in this case you will also evaluate the arguments for and against each proposal.

  • Reducing Tax Revenue
    Whether to reduce the overall tax revenues by $1.5 trillion over the next decade
  • Income Taxes on the Wealthy
    Whether to lower or increase income taxes for high-income individuals
  • Income Taxes on the Middle-Class
    Whether to lower income taxes on the middle class
  • Deducting State and Local Taxes
    Whether to eliminate state and local tax deductions on individual federal income taxes, including property taxes
  • Mortgage Deduction
    Whether to lower the home mortgage deduction cap
  • Reducing and then Eliminating the Estate Tax
    Whether to reduce, then eliminate, the estate tax in six years and in the meantime double the amount that can be transferred tax free
  • Corporate Tax Rates
    Whether to lower the top corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%
  • Territorial Tax
    Whether to eliminate he US corporate income tax on profits made by their subsidiaries in other countries
  • Pass-Through Businesses
    Whether to keep the new tax deduction given to ‘pass through’ business owners
  • Immediate Expensing
    Whether to allow businesses to deduct the full amount of their investments (other than buildings) for the next five years in the same year they make the investment, rather than spreading it out over a number of years
Defense Budget

In this simulation you have the opportunity to make up own national defense spending budget.  You can do it in parts, though we recommend you do it as whole in which case you will get ongoing feedback on how your overall budget compares with the current national defense budget. First you will evaluate the size of the defense budget overall, comparing it to other parts of the budget, defense spending budgets over the last 50 years, and the amount of defense spending as compared to potential enemies and allies.  You can set your proposed overall level as a benchmark when considering the various sections of the defense budget.

You will then get a briefing on the various parts of the defense budget, evaluate arguments for why it should be increased or decreased, and get an opportunity to adjust it up or down.  These areas include:

  • Air Power
  • Ground Forces
  • Naval Forces
  • Nuclear Weapons
  • Missile Defense
  • Marine Corps
  • Special Operations Forces

Evaluating Specific Weapons Systems
Here you can get briefed on current controversies issues related to specific weapon systems and make your recommendations.  

  • Whether to cancel and replace the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
  • Whether to begin development of a new long-range stealth bomber called “Next Generation” to replace the B-2
  • Whether to reduce the number of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers from 11 to 10,
  • Whether to reduce cue the Navy’s planned fleet of new nuclear strike submarines from 12 to 8

Operations in Afghanistan

  • You can learn about and weigh in on the key question being considered:
  • Whether to maintain the operation at a reduced level or withdraw nearly all troops and shut down combat bases

Try Federal Budget FY2019 Policymaking Simulation

Government Reform

Campaign Finance Reform

Encouraging Small Donors

  • Whether to provide tax credits for small donations by small donors
  • Whether to provide a six-to-one match for small donations using government revenues
  • Whether to provide a six-to-one match for small donations funded by a small fee on large federal government contractors

Restricting Direct Fundraising by Members of Congress

  • Whether to prohibiting Members of Congress from personally asking for donations

Increasing Disclosure of Political Donations

  • Whether to require all individuals or organizations that donate or receive a total of $10,000 or more for campaign‐related activities to promptly register with the FEC, have their name and the amount of the donations listed on the Commission’s website;
  • Whether to require that independent campaign‐related expenditures by corporations, unions, and other groups promptly report such spending to shareholders, members, and the general public, as well as the FEC
  • Whether to require that names of significant donors paying for TV or radio ads in support of candidates or related to controversial issues be publicly disclosed
  • Whether to require donors using credit cards to provide the address in which they are registered to vote in the US, to get the CVV on all online donations, and to get and report the address of all credit card donors, not just those giving $50 or more as currently required by law.

Constitutional Amendment Limiting Campaign Contributions

  • Whether to pass a constitutional amendment that would overturn the ‘Citizens United’ decision and allow Congress to limit campaign contributions and treat corporations differently than people.

Public Funding of Presidential Campaigns

  • Whether to end the program for public funding of presidential campaigns. The $3 check off on taxpayers’ IRS forms would be ended and the unused funds would be directed to pediatric research or deficit reduction

Allowing Nonprofits to Endorse Political Candidates

  • Whether to allow tax-exempt organizations to endorse political candidates and provide them money and other support, while keeping the organization’s tax-exempt status
Term Limits for Members of Congress
Whether to have term limits for Senate and House Members and if so what those limits should be.
Limits on Lobbying

Limiting Lobbying By Former Government Officials

  • Whether to extend the period former Members of Congress must wait before working as a lobbyist from 1‐2 years to five years
  • Whether to prohibit former Members of Congress from working as a lobbyist for the rest of their life
  • Whether to extend the waiting period for former senior Congressional staffers before lobbying to two years
  • Whether to extend the waiting period before lobbying to five years for all senior Executive Branch officials

Lobbying for Foreign Governments

  • Whether to prohibit former senior executive Branch officials from any lobbying on behalf of a foreign government for the rest of their life
Independent and Third Party Candidates
  • Whether to make it more possible for independent and third party candidates to compete in Congressional elections
  • Whether to make it more possible for independent or third‐party candidates to participate in presidential debates
Support for Former Presidents

Whether to end the current government support for former Presidents for office space, staff, or free use of the mail

Changes to the Way Congress is Elected

The following three reforms are part of the ‘Fair Representation Act’:

Citizen Redistricting

  • Whether to have a commission of citizens within each state shape the Congressional districts

Ranked-Choice Voting

  • Whether to use ranked choice or instant runoff voting in federal elections

Multi-Member Districts

  • Whether to make larger US House districts that would be represented by more than one Member of Congress

Try Fair Representation Act Policymaking Simulation

Try Government Reform Policymaking Simulation

Environmental Issues

Energy and Environment

Setting Priorities

  • Setting the priority level to reduce air pollution from energy production that has negative public health effects.
  • Setting the priority level to reduce greenhouse gases from energy production.

International Climate Agreement

  • Whether the US should participate in the international agreement recently negotiated in Paris and signed in New York, and thereby adopting the goal of reducing its greenhouse gases approximately 2% a year.
  • Whether the US should provide aid to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse gases as part of the larger Paris agreement

The Clean Power Plan

  • Whether the US should implement a plan to reduce carbon dioxide in the air by calling for each state in the US to reduce carbon dioxide from power plants by 2‐3% a year. Each state is to come up with a plan suited to its circumstances and energy mix.
  • Whether the US should mitigate the effects of the Clean Power Plan on the coal industry by having the government subsidize the development and building of new technologies for sequestering carbon dioxide.
  • Whether the US should provide coal workers who lost their jobs with support and training to make the transition to other employment.

Tax Incentives for Reducing Carbon Dioxide

  • Whether the federal government should provide tax incentives to promote the reduction of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
  • Whether the federal government should extend tax credits to consumers and businesses for installing fuel‐efficient lighting, doors, windows and insulation, building new energy efficient homes, and installing wind and fuel cells.
  • Whether the federal government should provide tax credits for building biogas facilities on farms, which would reduce methane.

Regulations to Reduce Carbon Dioxide and Other Pollutants

Whether there should be government regulations to reduce carbon dioxide and other pollutants by:

  • requiring higher fuel efficiency standards for light cars and trucks, and heavy duty vehicles,
  • requiring electric companies to have a minimum portion of their electricity come from renewable sources.
  • requiring businesses to gradually replace hydrofluorocarbons with alternative refrigerants.

Carbon Tax

  • Having a tax on the production of carbon dioxide (Note: This is also explored in the simulation on General Revenues, though here an evaluation of pro and con arguments is included.)
  • Using the income generated by a carbon tax to offset the impact of a carbon tax on people with low to middle incomes.
Ground-Level Ozone

Ozone Standards

  • Delaying by eight years the requirement that states undertake a step‐by‐step plan for lowering the maximum allowed ozone levels from 75 ppb to 70 ppb
Solar Panel Tariffs

Imposing Tariffs

  • Imposing a tariff on solar energy panels of 30% in year one, declining to 25% in year two, 20% in year three and 15% in year four

Try Solar Panel Tariffs Policymaking Simulation

Offshore Oil Drilling

Lifting Oil Drilling Bans

  • Lifting the bans and allow drilling for oil and gas along all of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and to expand the allowed area around Alaska

Allow State-Specific Bans

  • Allowing governors requesting a waiver that would keep in place the ban on offshore drilling along their state’s coastline

Independent Auditors

  • Lifting the regulation requiring that oil drilling equipment be inspected by independent auditors certified by the federal government

Clean-Up Fund

  • Renewing for 5 years the tax oil companies pay to a special fund to cover the cost of acting immediately to clean up an oil spill when necessary and raise the amount from 9 cents to 10 cents per barrel

Try Offshore Oil Drilling Policymaking Simulation

Sentencing Reform

There is a major debate these days about the number of Americans in prison. This debate has been prompted by the fact that the number of Americans in prison is historically high. The Sentencing Reform policymaking simulation examines proposals facing Congress that address the following issues:

Mandatory Sentencing

There have been a number of proposals in Congress to change the way that sentencing is done. The proposed change that would have the largest impact is to modify the laws that were passed during the period when crime rates were higher, called ‘mandatory minimum’ laws.

As mentioned, while previously judges had been given substantial discretion in sentencing, the new laws set ‘mandatory minimum sentences’ that required that the sentences be a certain minimum length. This minimum was also longer than the average sentences before the new laws. The new proposals currently being considered in Congress call for reducing federal mandatory sentencing requirements and giving judges more discretion, in setting sentences and granting parole.

With this discretion the judge can adjust sentences in light of their judgment of how much a defendant poses a risk to society. The kinds of things that a judge may consider is whether the person has a history of crimes, possessed a weapon at the time of the crime, were a leader in a joint criminal effort, and whether they fully cooperated with legal authorities. More broadly the judge may consider whether the person is likely to repeat their offenses.

Here are some of the current federal mandatory minimum sentences and the proposals being considered in Congress for modifying them.

“One Strike”
Currently, federal law requires that a conviction for one serious felony will result in a minimum 10 year prison sentence. Serious felonies can include:

  • Possessing or manufacturing a significant amount of illegal drugs with the apparent intention to sell.
  • What is called a “violent felony,” though it need not entail actual violence. Burglary and extortion are also included.

The proposal is to lower the mandatory minimum sentence for ‘one strike’ so that a judge could decide to give a sentence of 5 years in prison, though the judge could still make it longer.

“Two Strikes”
Current law requires that someone who is convicted of a second serious felony be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The proposal is to lower the mandatory minimum sentence for ‘two strikes” so that a judge could decide to give a sentence of 10 years in prison.

“Three Strikes”
This law is popularly referred to as “3 strikes and you are out.” It requires that if someone commits three serious felonies, they must be sentenced to life imprisonment. One of the felonies must be in the category of “violent felonies,” but, as mentioned, it need not entail violence since it includes burglary or extortion.

The proposal is to lower the mandatory minimum sentence for ‘three strikes’ so that a judge could decide to give a sentence of 25 years in prison.

New ‘Courier’ Category
Currently, someone whose role is limited to transporting or storing illegal drugs or the money related to drug deals is still subject to the mandatory minimum requirements so that, for example, one offense will result in a minimum sentence of 10 years.

The proposal is to create a new category for such cases, called ‘couriers,’ which would still be subject to punishment, but would not be subject to the mandatory minimums for serious drug offenses.

Compassionate Release

Currently, a significant number of prisoners are 60 years or older, terminally ill, or so ill that they need to be in an assisted living situation. It is also projected that, with current demographics, the number of prisoners in these categories will grow to 28% of the prison population by 2019.

Here is the proposal:

Judges would have the discretion to release from prison:

  • prisoners who are 60 years or older and have served two thirds of their sentence
  • prisoners who are terminally ill, or are so ill that they need to be in an assisted care facility

provided that:

  • they have no prior convictions for a crime of violence, sex offense, terrorism offense, or espionage
  • they do not have a history of violence,
  • they have never attempted an escape
  • their release from prison would lower costs for the government,
  • their release has been determined to pose no risk for society
Prerelease Custody

To be selected for the Prerelease Custody Program, the prisoner must:

  • be evaluated as having a low to moderate risk of renewed criminal activity; and
  • and, if moderate, the risk of renewed criminal activity must be assessed to have diminished during the period of the sentence.

Also, prisoners who participate in programs that reduce the risk of renewed criminal activity–such as drug/alcohol treatment, or employment training–will have a higher chance of being selected for the program.

The Bureau of Prison would then have the option to allow selected prisoners to serve the last 10% of their sentence in their residence or in a halfway house. Inmates are subject to monitoring, such as with an electronic ankle bracelet, and are required to remain in their residence or half-way house, with exceptions for employment and other specified activities.

Juveniles Convicted as Adults

First some background: Some of the people in federal prison today were convicted for crimes they committed when they were juveniles i.e. less than 18 years old. Many of them were tried as adults and received long-term sentences, including life in prison.

Here is the proposal:

For prisoners who have were convicted as juveniles and have served at least 20 years in prison, federal judges will have the option to determine whether the prisoner still poses a threat to society, and to release them from prison and place them on 5 years of supervised release.

Factors to be considered in determining whether the prisoner poses a threat to any person or community include:

  • the nature and circumstances of the crime,
  • the age at which they were convicted,
  • their behavior during their imprisonment,
  • a report of rehabilitation or improvement by a licensed healthcare professional.
Equalize Crack and Powder Sentencing

Another proposal that seeks to moderate sentencing is related to sentences for selling cocaine. In 1986, when there was an epidemic of crack cocaine, a law was passed that gave much more severe sentences for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine. In general, when someone is caught with a certain amount of cocaine, a larger amount will result in a longer sentence. The 1986 law required that, for sentencing purposes, a gram of crack cocaine would be treated as equivalent to 100 grams of powder cocaine. This law contributed to significantly longer sentences for crack cocaine.

In 2010, a new law was passed that moderated this ratio. Crack cocaine was still counted as equivalent to a greater amount of powder cocaine, but it was counted as 18 times more than the equivalent of powder cocaine.

This law applied to all new cases, but it did not apply retroactively to cases before 2010. Thus there are now people in prison who would have completed their sentence under the counting-methods of the new law (18 to 1), but are still in prison under the counting-methods of the old law (100 to 1).

There is now a proposal to make the counting methods of the new law apply to the sentences from before the year 2010.

Try Sentencing Reform Policymaking Simulation


Family Based Immigration Programs

Whether to reduce or eliminate the program that provides about 290,000 green cards for the parents, siblings and adult children of US citizens

  • Whether to reduce or eliminate the program that provides about 27,000 green cards to the adult children of permanent residents
Diversity Lottery

Whether to change the number of green cards granted through the lottery system to individuals from countries under-represented in the US population

Employment-Based Immigration

Whether to change the number of green cards granted through the lottery system to individuals from countries under-represented in the US population

  • Increasing the number of green cards granted each year to immigrants who have skills that are needed in the US labor market or who are investors who could start a business
  • In deciding who should be granted a green card, a point-based system should be used to allocate visas
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Program (DACA)

Creating a legal status for 1.8 million people who were eligible under the DACA program and making them eligible to apply for citizenship in 10-12 years provided that they meet certain requirements

Securing Southern Border

Spending $25 billion on building a barrier along the southern border, primarily a wall

  • Spending $1 billion or more on strengthening the southern border

Try Immigration Reform Policymaking Simulation

Postal Service Reform

All of the policy options assessed are from various bills that seek to address the US Postal Service’s fiscal problems.

The Requirement to Prefund Health Benefits

Whether to reduce, end or maintain the requirement to prefund future retiree health benefits for postal service workers

A Wider Range of Products and Services
  • Whether to allow the US Postal Service to offer a wider range of products and services that could generate revenue for the USPS. These include self-service photocopying, expanding money transfer services, providing a highly secure email system, offering internet access, providing consulting services to countries modernizing their postal services, renting excess space to local governments, renting space to private companies, selling ad space in post offices and on USPS trucks and offer small-scale individual savings accounts
Raising Postal Rates
  • Whether to allow postal rates to rise faster than inflation if warranted by increasing costs
Closing Post Offices
  • Whether to allow the Postal Service to close most unprofitable post offices, which would close 12% of all post offices or no more than 5% of post offices
Eliminating Saturday Letter Delivery
  • Whether to allow the Postal Service to eliminate letter delivery for Saturday, but keeping delivery of packages and priority mail
Reducing Door Delivery
  • Whether to require or promote voluntary conversion from door‐delivery mail boxes to curbside or cluster boxes
Labor Dispute Arbitration
  • Whether to require that in the event of labor disputes, arbitrators always take into account the Postal Service’s long‐term financial stability

Try Postal Service Reform Policymaking Simulation

Net Neutrality

Faster Downloads
  • Whether to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide websites the option to give their visitors the ability to download material at a higher speed, for a fee, while providing a slower speed for others
Blocking or Restricting Website Access
  • Whether to allow ISPs to block access to certain websites
  • Whether to allow ISPS to charge their customers an extra fee to gain access to certain websites

Try Net Neutrality Policymaking Simulation

Iran Nuclear Deal

In regard to the deal on Iran’s nuclear program signed in 2015:

  • Whether the US should withdraw from the deal and seek to negotiate a new deal or continue with the deal as long as Iran complies with the terms.

Try Iran Nuclear Deal Policymaking Simulation