by Pam Greenberg
The Minnesota Legislative Research Library has uncovered a lost treasure: a documentary film about the legislative process written and produced for NCSL in 1976 by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim, whose Academy-award winning films included Nine From Little Rock, A Time for Justice, and The Johnstown Flood.
The 30-minute documentary film, The First Branch of Government: From Grass Roots to Law, follows former Minnesota Representative Thomas Berg (photo) as he attempts to pass The Metropolitan Land Planning Act.
Former Representative Ray Faricy converted the film from its original format to DVD and gave it to the library, which in turn converted it to a media file format and made it available to all through the Legislature’s website.
The film begins, “Every year, 7,565 Americans travel to their state capitals to work. These citizen legislators carry with them the concerns and aspirations of their people—values which will ultimately determine the future of our children, our institutions and the quality of our land. This is the story of one of them—and the men and women who have joined him in performing this work.”
As Library Director Robbie LaFleur observes:
“Many of the scenes and sounds are anachronistic—typewriters clacking, people smoking in offices and committee rooms, and window air conditioners. Check out the plaid jackets! There are no cell phones or laptops in sight. But the human process of the Legislature that is portrayed is just as real today. Constituents have conflicting needs, priorities need balancing, and sometimes a legislator becomes irritated at roadblocks to the passage of a bill. Frustrating floor debates drag on and end in disappointment. It's difficult to balance the demands of office with home life. The film could be shown in a civics class today.”
The film really makes you feel as though you are standing in Representative Berg's shoes. He and others in the film seem totally unaware of the cameras and crew. There are scenes of Berg meeting with his constituents, talking with local officials, driving hundreds of miles on snowy roads for hearings throughout the state, and strategizing with colleagues. Berg is also faced with compromise—changing his bill in order to win wider support or risk losing the cause completely. A businessman opens his testimony at a committee hearing with: “Well, I’m one of those nasty developers...” Berg also talks with school kids in the chamber, telling them “I really hope in about 20 years several of you will be sitting out there in those seats, trying to decide what’s best for the state of Minnesota.”
The film ends by stating NCSL’s mission at that time (similar to, but shorter than our current mission):
“As an organization of the nation’s legislators and legislative staff, we have an obligation to the American people:
- To improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures
- To assure states a strong, cohesive voice in the federal decision-making process
- To foster interstate communication and cooperation
We intend to live up to that obligation.”
The film may not go viral on YouTube, but among legislative junkies or legislator wannabe's, it's a must see.