The University of Texas at Austin
  • What "Schoolhouse Rock" didn't teach you

    By Erin Geisler, College of Communication
    Published: May 4, 2011
    What
    Students in the Key Votes Program are researching, tracking and summarizing legislation on a variety of subjects.

    I’m just a bill.
    Yes, I’m only a bill.
    And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.

    Many of us fondly remember the tune made famous in the 1975 “Schoolhouse Rock” song. But how many of us really understand how a bill becomes law?

    Undergraduate interns with the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation’s Key Votes Program are going beyond the lyrics and the classroom to gain in-depth knowledge of the legislative process by researching, tracking and summarizing key legislation from all 50 states and the federal level.

    Their findings are published on the Project Vote Smart Web site, where citizens from across the country can read the bills that may eventually become law and see how their representatives voted on those bills.

    Alejandra Hernandez, a junior political communication major in the College of Communication who aspires to attend law school, is one of the students tracking and summarizing bills.

    “I track how bills at the state level are drafted, written and voted on,” said Hernandez. “I identify the important points and summarize the bill into layman’s terms so constituents will understand how it affects them. Many of the bills I’ve tracked have ended up receiving a lot of media attention once they’re passed, so it’s nice to have been involved at the earlier stages.”

    In addition to reading the bills themselves, interns examine local media coverage of the bill to provide context.

    Key Votes tracks a large pool of votes, which enables interns to select the bills they track by state or issue, such as abortion, education, energy and the environment, gun rights, immigration and labor, among many others.

    “We track the bills from committee — in both the house and senate in each state — all the way up to the governor,” said Rafic Bittar, a political science junior in the College of Liberal Arts who plans to go to law school and is contemplating a career in politics. “The main thing I’m learning is how to read through the bill text — which is not as easy as it sounds since it’s packed with legal jargon.

    “This is not just about citizens being informed on candidates,” continued Bittar. “These bills are creating laws that are relevant to citizens. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of voter ID bills showing up across the country this spring.

    “I recently followed a bill in Montana proposing to legalize hunting with spears — and it ended up passing,” he said.

    Once an intern summarizes a bill, which can range from one or two pages to more than 100, and boils it down to an easily digestible format it goes through multiple reviews to remove potentially partisan language and ensure accuracy and clarity.

    After a bill is passed, the summary is published to the Key Votes Web site, where citizens can read overviews of the key votes in their state.

    According to Chris Copsey, director of legislative research for Project Vote Smart, which runs the Key Votes program at the Annette Strauss Institute, this is a substantive internship where students play an integral role in the political process.

    “The Key Votes  Web site enables citizens to make informed decisions at the ballot box — and that would not be possible without the work of student interns,” said Copsey.

    He goes on to note that in today’s political and media environment citizens are bombarded with all sorts of messages from the left and the right. “These arguments often conflict with each other, so how do you know who to trust?” he said.

    “Our students are pulling out the bare bones facts, without making judgment, so that citizens can make their own judgment on what the bill means to them,” he said.

    The Key Votes program is now accepting internship applications for the fall semester. Interns earn course credit and are asked to work a minimum of 10 hours per week.

    Established at the university in 2000, the non-partisan Annette Strauss Institute aims to create more voters and better citizens through education, engagement and research programs.

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