Learning how government works
Student spends week as Senate Scholar
By Robert Cloud
A Waupaca High School junior was in Madison March 5-10, learning how to be a state senator.
Nate Wachsmuth was among 33 students selected from hundreds of applicants statewide to be a Senate Scholar.
The program introduces Wisconsin high school students to the legislative process. They learn from first-hand experience about the legal and budgetary research, the lobbying and negotiating that precedes drafting a bill.
Among his experiences, Wachsmuth helped draft and pass a “law” during mock committee meetings and hearings.
He also served as an assistant on the Senate floor, toured the State Capitol, climbed to the top of the dome and met with journalists who cover state government.
“On Monday (March 6), we met with the the head of the support agencies that prepare reports for the senators,” Wachsmuth said.
Those agencies include the Legislative Audit Bureau and the Legislative Reference Bureau.
“The Legislative Reference Bureau was probably the most interesting,” Wachsmuth said. “They’re the ones who are in charge of looking into the laws that already exist and the Supreme Court decisions. They provide information to help a senator write a bill or support a bill.”
On March 7, Wachsmuth went to the Legislative Reference Bureau and spoke with Michael Gallagher, the senior attorney for the agency.
“He introduced the bill that we were drafting,” Wachsmuth said. “We debated it in our 11-person group as if we were in the Senate.”
During most of their time in Madison, the Senate Scholars were discouraged from espousing their political views because the program is nonpartisan.
However, at dinner on that Tuesday night, they discussed their opinions about the state of the country and the state of Wisconsin.
The students also spent that day working on the Senate floor.
Among Wachsmuth’s assignments was to purchase two sandwiches and a bag of chips for Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine.
“When we weren’t running errands, we were in the back watching the process,” Wachsmuth said. “It wasn’t completely interesting, but it did make for some good learning.”
The Senate Scholars also spent part of the day watching debate in the Assembly.
He noticed differences in the decorum of the two legislative bodies.
“In the Assembly, they are more willing to take shots at each other personally. They would question the judgment of the person. They are less focused on the bill itself,” Wasmuch said. “In the Senate, they debated the merits of the bill.”
Bill on blood
On March 8, the students began drafting their bill.
First, they met with Gallagher again and learned the correct legal terminology and how to write amendments.
The students were divided into three groups, and each group proposed their own version of the bill.
The bill they were drafting was to lower the age of blood donations.
Under current state law, a donor must be at least age 17 to give blood without parental permission. A 16-year-old donor may give blood with parental permission.
“Our bill was to lower that age to 14 with permission, and no permission was required for 15 and above,” Wachsmuth said.
Among the issues the bill also had to address was defining the difference between blood and plasma.
Whole blood is comprised of red cells, white cells, platelets and plasma.
Plasma is the liquid portion of the blood that carries nutrients, proteins and other cells throughout the body.
Plasma is often used for burn victims and people with liver disease.
“The difference between blood and plasma is not defined in our statutes now,” Wachsmuth said.
The Senate Scholars proposed bills that included two separate sections for blood and plasma.
Since a goal of the exercise was to learn how to make amendments, Wachsmuth said the 11 students voted to select the bill that was the shallowest and easiest to amend.
The rest of that day was spent writing amendments.
On March 9, Wachsmuth met with state Sen. Luther Olsen. He represents the 14th Senate District, which includes most of Waupaca County.
“We talked for about half an hour,” Wachsmuth said. “The piece of advice he gave me was that you can vote however you want, but you are a representative of your people and an interpreter of their will, Sometimes, you’ll know how the general number of them want you to vote, but other times you won’t.”
Wachsmuth said the key to making political decisions is to be able to explain the reasons those decision.
“They may not not agree with your decision, but they will understand why you did and respect that,” Wachsmuth said.
On March 10, after visiting the Robert LaFollette School of Public Affairs and the Governor’s Mansion, the students held a public hearing on their bill.
People, acting as constituents, testified about their concerns at the hearing.
“My dad came down and testified in front of the committee,” Wachsmuth said. “He did a pretty good job of laying out why he believed the age should be lowered.”
Wachsmuth is the son of Dan and Dixie Wachsmuth.
Later, Wachsmuth presented his amendment that defined plasma and lowered the age for donating plasma to 16.
His amendment passed 9-2.
Four other amendments were presented. Three of them passed.
The bill with all four amendments passed by a vote of 7-4.
“Some people were unhappy with some of the amendments,” Wachsmuth said. “They thought it was too demanding or too impersonal.”
Although Wachsmuth enjoyed his week in Madison, he is more interested in science than politics.
“It was fun being a senator for a week, but I don’t know if I would want that to be my job,” Wachsmuth said.
He said he hopes to major in biochemistry or molecular biology, then perhaps go to medical school.