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Dan Bernick
Dan Straight

Credit: Dan Bernick

Americans are fed up with congressional gridlock and partisan pandering. Penn students are, too. Unfortunately, student government is a lot like real government.

Recently, many students have complained about self-important Undergraduate Assembly representatives and the uselessness of student government. On, a commenter named “Biff” sarcastically wrote, “Future leaders of the nation, right here.”

It’s true; student politics can be just as dysfunctional as the real version in D.C.

It all starts with elections. Student government elections increase outreach and ensure accountability. But, like in the real world, student politicians are perpetually concerned with re-election and respond to these electoral forces in many ways.

First, student government has special interest groups. Most of us have heard this term before, and that’s for good reason — these groups spent $3.5 billion on federal lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Although they don’t use money, some student groups are good at lobbying. The Assembly of International Students worked collaboratively with the student government this year on international student financial aid. In this case, lobbying was a positive thing; AIS helped the UA become more informed and pass an effective resolution. Special interests at Penn don’t have sinister agendas, but the more you lobby, the more student government can work for you.

Second, student government experiences election cycles. Pundits bemoan — and citizens suffer from — the legislative inactivity preceding congressional elections. When campaign season rolls around, legislators forget about D.C. and focus on their home state.

This phenomenon also plagues student government. Leaders are productive during the fall but get distracted in the spring. Representatives prepare for an intense campaign season and only pass legislation that will increase votes (and avoid controversial issues like Penn’s tobacco policy and the DREAM Act).

Unlike real government, student government has term limits. Students can only serve until they graduate. Seniors tend to disengage later in the year as post-college concerns take priority. This is especially concerning when seniors hold positions of power.

Third, student government elections are imperfect. Turnout was a low 44.3 percent last spring, compared to the 55 percent of Americans during recent presidential elections. Also, students are often unaware of the issues and rarely know of more than a few candidates. Consequently, student politicians resort to catchy slogans (much like how real politicians use sound bites and political party affiliation) rather than policy proposals.

One implication of imperfect elections is incumbent advantage. According to Princeton University professor Jessica Trounstine, low-information and low-participation elections increase incumbency victory. At Penn, incumbents often make better legislators because they know how to navigate the University’s bureaucracy. Unfortunately, non-competitive elections also make candidates less accountable.

Fourth, student governments experience major roadblocks. When the federal government gives mandates to states, the states fight back. For student government, the administrators are a source of pushback. Imagine if the states not only fought back but also controlled the purse strings and could veto congressional legislation.

Fortunately, the Penn administration is receptive to and supportive of student government. Student leaders meet with top-level administrators regularly to push forward big projects, like financial aid and academic improvements. But if the student government ever disagrees, the administration gets the final say.

Student government is just as political as real government, with lower turnout and greater roadblocks. This analysis is not very encouraging. However, you can use it to your advantage.

Agreeing to help with a campaign can make a major difference to a candidate who might, in turn, push hard on your priorities. If you voice your opinion earlier in the year, you will get more help. If your problem is easy to solve and affects lots of people, tell the candidate running for president, and it will most likely be taken care of immediately. Group endorsements work in the same way — you scratch candidates’ backs, and they’ll scratch yours.

Politics is dirty. But fortunately, students have the power to ensure representatives — not just politicians — are elected.

Dan Bernick, a College sophomore from Mendota Heights, Minn., is a College representative on the Undergraduate Assembly. His email address is Dan Straight appears every other Tuesday.

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