Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mountains and Clouds / The Senators Bargain (How Democracy Works Now)

MPAA (unrated) Fr. Dennis (4 stars) listing

Official Website - How Democracy Works Now

Mountains and Clouds and The Senators Bargain are two parts of a recently completed 12 part documentary series entitled 12 Stories: How Democracy Works Now (directed by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson).  The two films played recently at the Chicago’s 9th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Facet’s Multimedia in Chicago. 

Both stunning and exasperating, the series documented the struggle and ultimate failure of Congress to pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform between 2001 and 2007.  What makes the series stunning is the access that the film makers, Camerini and Robertson, were able to secure to tell the story.  They had the full cooperation of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) as well as their staffs and then access and cooperation to a wide range of coalitions and interest groups on the outside. 

The result is a must-see primer for anyone who seeks to become seriously involved in a legislative campaign for change.  And yet it can also seem exasperating.

Discernable in the series appear to be at least 4 levels on which a serious campaign has to be waged:

At the top are the Members of Congress (Senators and/or Representatives) themselves and as Michael Camerini pointed out in the forum discussion following the film screening, in the United States today, it all comes down to getting to the magic number of 60 Senators on your side.  60 Senators (out of 100) are needed to close debate on an issue.  Without attaining this magic number an bill can not be brought up for a vote. 

Below the Senators/Representatives are their staffs.  This documentary series focuses above all on them (as well as the some of the lobbyists/strategists of the various interest and lobbying groups with whom they interact).  The staff members are the work horses.  Yes, they are given general direction by the Senators / Representatives for whom they work, and at key moments the Senators/Representatives step-out to “seal the deal."  Yet, the staff members are the ones who are talking to /setting up appointments with the staffs of other Senators/Representatives as well as with other representatives of the various outside interest groups.  And they are the ones manning the switchboards and keeping track of the e-mails received from constituents, keeping tabs on the pulse of the constituents back home.

Below the staffs are the various interest and lobbying groups.  And they are important, because they understand how a particular policy or piece of legislation would effect their interest and they do therefore help Congress to write better legislation even if there are generally competing interests fighting for the Senators/Representatives ears.

Finally, below them are grass-roots constituents.  In something of a surprise to me, it became _clear as day_ in this documentary series that phone calls and e-mails from constituents _do_ have an _enormous impact_ the success and failure of legislation.  So if you ever doubted the value of responding to an appeal by an advocacy group for a cause that you believe in to e-mail or call your Senators/Representatives, PLEASE DON’T.  Your voices _are being heard_.  And indeed, it was clear as day that Comprehensive Immigration Reform was defeated precisely because its opponents were far more organized/vocal in bombarding Congress with e-mails and phone calls than its proponents. 

The other surprise (though perhaps less so on reflection, because even Senators/Representatives are people) was that “the giants at the top” (those elected Senators/Representatives) CAN BE VERY PETTY.  A good part of the Mountains and Clouds episode (the title not coming from any actual mountains and clouds but from a large modern metal statue gracing center of the atrium in the Hart Senate Office Building ...) dealt with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) trying to placate aging Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) who became a distracting obstacle to the immigration reform bill over a perceived slight on an unrelated issue. 

Indeed, I watched _with my jaw dropped_ as this incident played out: Sen. Kennedy telling one of his staff members to make sure that Sen. Byrd had a comfortable seat, make sure that he felt comfortable, had a cup of coffee, etc, etc, when Sen. Byrd finally came in to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Immigration Reform (at Sen. Kennedy’s invitation) so that Sen. Byrd could finally publicly air his grievance against the process.  It was basically a turf issue, and Byrd, who was head of the Senate Appropriations Committee felt slighted when the Senate had blocked a $15 billion request for Homeland Security that he said would have paid for the Border Security portion of the Immigration Reform proposal at the time.  Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Blackburn were trying to tell Sen. Byrd “all in good time” and wanted the rest of the bill to be settled first, but Byrd felt “slighted.”

I asked the two makers of the documentary at the forum discussion following the screening what they made of Sen. Byrd’s antics, asking them if they (like me watching him in the film) thought that he may have been simply senile.  They answered that Sen. Byrd did feel himself to be an “elder statesman” in the Senate by then (he was in the Senate for over 50 years) and that he did like to portray himself as a “defender of the traditions/ways of the Senate." But they also said that his behavior had a purpose. As a conservative Democrat he was opposed to Comprehensive Immigration Reform in any case.  However, the perceived "slight" _gave him an excuse_ to cause proponents of the measure problems.  Indeed, Shari Robertson, one of the documentary’s film makers, concluded her answer to this question by saying that it _is_ instructive for people to know that if they wish to lobby Congress for change, that they are going to be dealing with Senators and Representatives with egos and hence to come prepared for that. 

The ego issue came up again in the Senators Bargain episode when in 2007 Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made what appears to have been a critical error during the Senate debate of the very complex (and very fragile) Comprehensive Immigration Reform measure by seeking to end debate on the measure too quickly.  To be sure, dozens of amendments had been considered and voted on.  Most of these amendments were rejected but some, already severely weakening the bill had been accepted and many more amendments were still pending.  As such, Sen. Reid may have sought to bring the debate to an end to “save the bill.”  However, the result was a disaster.  Not only did he not get the 60 (out of 100) votes to end debate on the bill, he didn’t even get a majority 50.  Why?  Because _a lot_ of Senators voted against “cloture” because they were felt slighted once more.  Indeed, in the press conference that followed, Sen Kyl (R-AZ) who had worked out the “Grand Compromise” for the bill with Sen. Kennedy blasted Sen. Reid’s stupidity noting that Sen. Kennedy _knew well_ the importance of just letting everybody have their say.  And Sen. Kennedy, again one who served in the Senate for 40 years agreed.

After several weeks of behind the scenes work by Sen. Kennedy’s office (and _all those staffers_) the bill was resurrected for one final try (something of a gargantuan feat in itself because most bills _die_ after a failure of a cloture vote).  However, after a compromise had been worked out on the number and choreography of amendments, the Bill failed a second cloture vote _anyway_, largely because grassroots opponents to the bill kept-up pressure on Senators to oppose the bill without a similar effort in support of it. 

But then, many expected supporters of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill saw the bill so weakened that they began to walk away from it.  In a very powerful scene near the end of The Senators Bargain episode, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) called in the representatives from Sen. Kennedy’s office as well as representatives of various groups that have lobbied in favor of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  Then noting that, yes, the bill would offer a pathway for legalizing the status of the 12 million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, but in return the point system proposed (by Sen. Kyl) in the bill to regulate future immigration applications into the United States would _all but guarantee_ that _the vast majority of the 500 million Latin Americans_ living south of our borders would _never_ qualify for getting an immigration visa to the United States, Sen. Menendez asked them, “Tell me why I should support this bill?”  The staffers and proponents of the bill could only answer “It’s the best that is possible now, and in the future we could fix its difficulties.”

It would seem that the loud, organized opposition of anti-immigration/nativist forces on one side and the bleeding away for reasons to vote for the bill on the part of pro-immigration forces on the other appeared to seal the bill’s doom.

Still, what an incredible job on the part of the film-makers of this documentary series in showing how Washington (democracy) works!  And I would definitely recommend the series to _anyone_ interested in advocacy.  The entire series can be purchased through the film-makers How Democracy Works Now website for the (current) price of $150, which is not an exorbitant price for an advocacy group.  Individuals could look to see if they could check out the series at a public library.

But again, what a _great_ documentary series for _anyone_ considering getting involved in advocacy to see!

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