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Film Review: The Best Little Statehouse in Texas

April 3rd, 2008

texas-capitol.jpgThe film titled “The Best Little Statehouse in Texas”, narrated by Larry King, provides a unique view of the processes and procedures of the Texas legislature. The video also shows much of the backroom politics and influences that occur behind the scenes before a bill is ultimately passed or rejected. The film is successful in describing some of the personalities and political views of the various senators, representatives, and lobbyists. The video also depicts many of the conflicts and compromises that occur between opposing legislators.

The first section of the film deals with the issue of redistricting and the second part deals with a bill on the interest rate ceiling and briefly describes the power and influence of special interest lobbying groups. Larry King does a very good job of giving a first person perspective on the ways bills are actually turned into laws. From his viewpoint, wheeling and dealing, fierce arguing, compromise, and even personal attacks often are part of the process. Mr. King also illustrates the weight of lobbying groups and political influence on the final outcome of proposed laws.

In the first part of the film, Larry King’s portrayal of the behind-the-scenes events leading to the passage or defeat of a bill is most effective in showing that heated arguments and personal attacks can become part of the process. The first part of the film dealt with the issue of redistricting. Redistricting is done every ten years in Texas and is based on census results. This issue has become particularly sensitive because population shifts among the districts can result in a gain or loss in representatives in the legislature and can affect the distribution of political parties within the legislature.

Minority representation groups pay particular attention to this issue because of past gerrymandering efforts. In the video, Bob Davis, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, worked with his Republican colleagues to form an alliance with minority groups in order to get more representative seats in certain districts. Later, as a personal attack, Mr. Davis is accused by several House members of feeding incorrect data into a (very old looking) computer when the final redistricting map is printed out. Finally, the issue definitely heated up even more when a black and a Hispanic representative argued over which of their districts should contain a single city block which was right on the district boundary.

The first part of the video also demonstrated that occasionally compromise is not possible because both sides are too personally involved. After the intense argument over whether one block would be in whose district, the parties could not reach agreement. William Clayton, the House speaker, had to decide the issue and both parties had to sign the final plan. King showed very clearly that compromise might not always work. Viewing the encounters and arguments among the legislators was very effective in explaining the speaker’s view of how bills become laws because the viewer had the sense of watching the actual events.

The second part of the film showed the wheeling and dealing as well as the political power some groups have in influencing the passage or defeat of bills. This part addressed the question of how high to set the interest rate ceiling. In the video, Nub Donaldson, a former representative, supports a bill that would set the interest rate ceiling at 24%. Also supporting the bill are several corporate lobbying groups, who argue in favor of the bill in the interest of keeping corporate expenses lower and encouraging business growth. The businesses, obviously, wanted to make more money. Meanwhile, Jim Hightower of the Texas Consumer Federation and the labor union lobbyists were opposed to the bill. These groups argued for the consumers who did not want to pay higher interest payments on their debt.

Larry King’s view showed that the lobby groups seem to have more influence than the legislators themselves. The lobbyists maybe had greater reason to work harder to get what they wanted because they received higher pay than the legislators. The lobbyists also put in longer hours trying to persuade legislators to vote their way – again, probably because they earned a very high salary for their efforts. The legislators did not have the incentive to work as hard or as long to try to persuade people to their viewpoint. In the end, the corporate lobbyists prevailed and the bill passed the Senate 24-4 despite a long, lonely filibuster by Lloyd Doggett. King’s perspective on the influence of lobbyists would not have been nearly as effective if he had come to class and given a lecture or if we had simply been given a handout. By acting out the events, the viewer understood not only what was happening, but also why it happened the way it did.

Overall, the film does a good job of educating the viewers about the real political process of the Texas legislature. The film also gave a useful general presentation of some important issues in Texas such as redistricting and interest rate ceilings. Since the last census, redistricting is again a hot issue statewide. The process of making laws involves much compromise and dealings behind the scenes. I do not have any basis to judge if the speaker’s perspective is correct, since I have no real knowledge to compare his views with others. However, I believe making laws would certainly be much easier with fewer people making the decisions. Yet many people believe that the United States has the best government in the world because a relatively high number of voices eventually get heard. Our system may be messy and complicated, but I cannot think of any better way to do it. In summary, the film gave me a sense of how wheeling and dealing, fierce arguing, compromise, and lobbying efforts come together as part of the process of making laws.

I have two suggestions to make watching the video better. First, the quality of the audio and video was poor. People who are hearing impaired and must use interpreters may have a hard time understanding all the words spoken. This has nothing to do with Larry King’s production. It’s simply that the film’s quality has degraded over time. Perhaps a new or better copy could be obtained. Second, the video should have had closed or open captioning. This would allow people with hearing impediments to both watch the actors on the video as well as ‘hear’ the words they were saying. As presented, it is difficult to do both at the same time.

Closed or open captioning may also have helped everyone else better understand the spoken words because of the reportedly poor audio quality. If time or money does not allow captioning, another idea would be to provide a transcript of the video. Again, however, the use of an actual video portrayal of lawmaking in progress by Larry King was an excellent teaching method. I certainly understand better how people interact and argue for their cause and how, after much debate and arguing, bills are passed or defeated. It seems that the actual political process can be quite difficult to navigate for both legislators and citizens.


One Response to “Film Review: The Best Little Statehouse in Texas”

  1. comment number 1 by: Christopher

    I had the opportunity to view this several years ago in a collegiate government class. Any ideas on how to obtain a copy?

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