The legislative clock: the card game

30 Mar, 2016 - - @egocrata

Time to a hardcore game theory article, with a focus on the gaming side.

This comes from a slightly demented/genius (not sure which one applies) idea I have been testing for the Policy Academy workshops on advocacy we do at my day job in Connecticut. The idea is that using a PolSci base, we can use game theory (and rational choice theory, etc) to better understand the legislative process.

One of the things that I want to cover is agenda setting and veto power, and specifically how the time constraints cards-poker-the-game-digital-art-ace-of-spades-card-game-dark-background-play-1920x1080of the session give power to the minority. You do that, of course, with a little card game. And I mean a literal card game, with playing cards. Like, a two player game about approving bills in a time-constrained legislature.

You can download the “deck” here. To get started, let’s go over the rules I’ve been toying with.

The game has two players, a democrat and a republican. One starts the game as the Speaker, the other as the Minority Leader. Divide the deck in two piles, one with the Speaker cards (10 bills and the Speaker’s bill), the other with the Minority Leader card (questions, filibuster and drafting mistake). Shuffle each pile, and set each within reach of the player.

The Speaker begins the game drawing the top 4 cards of his pile and the budget card. Each legislative card has three elements:

  • The name of the bill (“early care initiative” “transportation bill” “welfare reform” “tax cuts”)
  • One number that shows how many points the Speaker will get if the bill passes: 10 points for its favorite bill (“universal basic income”, for instance), 9 for his 2nd favorite, and 1 for his least favorite (“flat tax” or something like that).
  • One number that shows how many points the Minority Leader will get if it passes. The scale is symmetrical to the one for the Speaker, so the card with the “10” on the majority side has a “1” on the minority side.
  • The Speaker’s Bill allows the Speaker to propose a bill with the point distribution of his or her choice. The Republican and Democrat score must add 11.

The Minority Leader begins the game drawing the top 5 cards of his pile. His card contains:

  • Ten question cards: each card has from one to ten legislators asking questions. The card with one legislator burns one hour of floor time; the card with two burns two hours, and so on.
  • A Filibuster card: the Minority Leader can play two question cards this turn. The budget can be delayed with this card.
  • Drafting mistake card: the current proposed bill has a drafting mistake, and is returned to the hand of the Speaker. The Speaker must propose a different piece of legislation. The budget can be delayed with this card.

The game plays as follows. Each session has 30 hours of floor time (subject to play testing — I am still toying with this number).

  1. Speaker plays first, proposing a piece of legislation. After he plays it, he draws another card.
  2. Minority Leader plays second, playing one question card and deciding how much time he burns. He might play two cards if he uses the filibuster; the filibuster card is discarded. He then draws one card. Note that his hand is weaker after doing a filibuster.
  3. Both players take turns until the session clock expires, and scores are added up.

Special rules:

  • Legislature: a legislature consist of two rounds. The first is the long session, with 30 hours of floor time. The second round is a short session, at it only has 20 hours of floor time.
  • Writing the budget: during a long legislative session, the budget can not be introduced until 10 hours of session time have passed, to give time to drafters to prepare it. In the short session the budget can not be the first bill brought to the floor by the Speaker.
  • The budget must be approved in order for the Speaker to avoid embarrassment. If it does not pass, the Speaker looks bad and his score is halved.
  • At the end of the second round, players switch sides, with the Minority Leader taking over as Speaker.
  • The player with the most points after four rounds wins the game.

Possible variants:

  • Uncertain elections: game has six rounds instead of four. At the end of session two and session four, a coin toss decides which player wins the election. The winner is the speaker in the following two rounds.
  • Good government variant: at the end of each legislature, the player with the most points wins the election, and becomes (or remains) the Speaker. This makes the game unbalanced, but so is life.
  • Governor’s veto: insert the Governor’s veto card in the Speaker’s deck after he draws his opening four cards, then shuffle. When the Speaker’s draws the veto, the last proposed bill is vetoed by the Governor. The legislation is discarded unless both players agree to override the veto. The Governor can and will veto the budget. Do not enrage the Governor.

The whole exercise is a good way to see how the power shifts during the session towards the minority, and how big bills are risky. Majority and minority might want to cooperate to get things done, but the cooperation is fickle — and it gets worse and worse as the clock begins to run out. I am specially curious on how people play the budget card, and if scorched earth majority steamrolling is actually a viable strategy, specially knowing that roles change after a few rounds.

Some additional variants are possible, as well. For instance, we could have a three or four player game adding party factions; someone that controls a few legislator cards and is really, really obsessed with passing an specific bill. We could add committees, as well, adding an extra step to the process. Of course, with more rules comes a more complicated game, and it might lose some of its intended clarity.

Anyway, I need play testers to see how it works, so this in why I am sharing the rules. Feel free to leave comments, suggestions, complaints or publishing offers in the comments.

Update log: as you have probably noticed, the post has been updated – some play testing has made clear the game needed some tweaks.

  • The session is now much shorter (30 hours instead of 50) to give the Minority Leader some additional leverage and force the Speaker to negotiate. The second session is just 20 hours, making the budget a tricky thing to pass.
  • Added uncertainty in which cards players have from the start, to introduce bluffing for the Minority Leader and make the Speaker somewhat unreliable (“my caucus doesn’t let me do this!“)
  • Added two special cards: the drafting error allows the Minority Leader to delay one bill, making the budget slightly more vulnerable (in play testing, Speakers always moved the budget ahead of anything else). The Speaker’s bill gives the Speaker the chance to give a graduated offer to the Minority Leader at least once per turn. This is done to give more room for negotiation.
  • We have not play tested the Governor’s veto much. The idea is to force players to talk, and in case of a budget veto, to force the Speaker to scramble and surrender a huge chunk of its agenda to survive the round.