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.

Overview of Policymaking Simulation Categories and Topics

The Federal Budget

  • Creating a Federal Budget for FY2020
  • Social Security Reform
  • Addressing the Medicare Shortfall

Environmental Issues

  • Energy and Environment – An Introduction
  • International Climate Agreement
  • Approaches to Reducing CO2 and Other Pollutants
  • Ground-Level Ozone
  • Solar Panel Tariffs
  • Offshore Oil Drilling

U.S. Postal Service Reform

  • Requirement to Prefund Health Benefits
  • A Wider Range of Products and Services
  • Labor Dispute Arbitration

International Trade

  • International Trade: Overview
  • Unemployment Benefits
  • Labor & Environmental Standards
  • Trade Adjustment Assistance
  • Job Training Programs
  • US Tariffs on China
  • Steel & Aluminum Tariffs
  • World Trade Organization
Government Reform

  • Encouraging Small Donors
  • Constitutional Amendment Limiting Campaign Contributions (Citizens United)
  • Restricting Direct Fundraising by Members of Congress
  • Increasing Disclosure of Political Donations
  • Allowing Nonprofits to Endorse Political Candidates
  • Changes to the Way Congress is Elected
  • Citizen Redistricting to Counter Gerrymandering
  • Ranked-Choice Voting
  • Multi-Member Districts
  • Term Limits for Members of Congress
  • Limits on Lobbying by Former Government Officials
  • Independent and Third Party Candidates
  • Support for Former Presidents

Nuclear Weapons Policy

  • Arms Control Treaties with Russia
  • New START Treaty
  • INF Treaty
  • Minimum Retaliatory Capability
  • First Use of Nuclear Weapons
  • Land-Based Missiles
  • Nuclear Testing
  • Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons


  • Family-Based Immigration Programs
  • Diversity Lottery
  • Employment-Based Immigration
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Program (DACA)
  • Securing the Southern Border

Net Neutrality


Postal Service Reform

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

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


International Trade

As you may know, after World War II, the United States together with most of the major countries in the world set up a number of international agreements and institutions. The aim was to enable countries to cooperate in an effort to preserve peace, promote international trade, lessen poverty through economic development, reduce hunger, respond to disasters, help refugees, promote health, and further human rights and democracy.

The most prominent institution has been the United Nations and its related global agencies, such as the World Food Program and, more recently, the World Trade Organization.

But such agreements and institutions also include regional alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO and regional trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA.

Many people think that these agreements and institutions are still valuable and important, have served the U.S. well, and should be maintained even if they require some cost. But, other people think they are no longer useful and the U.S. should disengage from them so that the U.S. is freer to pursue its interests independently.

In this policymaking simulation, we will give you some background on some of the guiding principles of these agreements and institutions, and have you evaluate arguments for the U.S. maintaining or disengaging from them. The policymaking simulation is broken out into eight modules:

1. International Trade: Overview (12 questions)

Balancing the Negative Effects of Trade:

2. Unemployment Benefits  (5 questions)

3. Labor & Environmental Standards  (6 questions)

4. Trade Adjustment Assistance  (4 questions)

5. Job Training Programs  (8 questions)

6. US Tariffs on China  (4 questions)

7. Steel & Aluminum Tariffs (5 questions)

8. World Trade Organization (3 questions)   

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

Out of Date

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 decad

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

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

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

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