Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Democracy Works Now

This blog has been quite loud in its enthusiasm for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Well, last night, we saw one of the best and most insightful pieces on the national legislative process in America we have yet encountered. It was called "Mountains and Clouds" and it focused on efforts to pass national legislation to address immigration issues. It is part of a 12-part series to be shown on HBO called "How Democracy Works Now" and what makes it so great is the amazing behind-the-scenes detail combined with a fast-paced, brilliantly edited narrative. In this particular film, as well as many of the others, center stage is given to two senators with strong commitments to immigration reform - Kennedy of Massachusetts and Brownback of Kansas. Even more interesting, are the ways in which the staffs of these senators work behind the scenes to move the legislative process along.

It turns out, though, that democracy is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. The workload is crushing but the pay-off is dauntingly modest and incremental. All the more reason, then, to admire the people who labor for these senators. Esther for Senator Kennedy, his chief counsel on immigration, and David for Senator Brownback, his go-to advisor on such issues, become the focus of this portrait of the legislative process and their competence and commitment are nothing short of amazing. Particularly fascinating in this film is the central role played by Senator Byrd of West Virginia, who opposes any effort to liberalize immigration policy, and how delicately his easily rankled personality must be handled.

Indeed, what makes this such a great film is how powerfully it documents the ways in which relationship building shapes the legislative process and how uncertain and tentative every action is until the final vote is called.

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