WASHINGTON—In an effort to stimulate discussion, resolve party conflicts, and increase legislative productivity, members of the 111th Congress were once again required to watch an instructional video on bipartisan collaboration this week.
"Since both House and Senate seem unable or unwilling to compromise on several issues regarding tax money, earmarks, or even seating arrangement, we have decided to take drastic action," Vice President Joe Biden told a special joint session of Congress Monday. "Hopefully this will give you some tools you can use to lend a hand, and maybe an ear, across the aisle."
"And please, no talking on cell phones during the video," Biden added. "I'm looking at you, Senator Reid."
Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution specifies that the legislative branch must watch the instructional training film "A Vote For Understanding" once every six years. The 30-minute video was made in 1976 and stars former Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI), who guides viewers through a series of short lessons about the importance of listening to the opposition without interrupting, yelling, or filibustering.
After calling the mandatory session to order, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wheeled in a cart with a television and VCR and instructed Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to dim the lights.
The film opens with a dramatization of two legislators tugging at opposite ends of the same bill, until Proxmire steps into frame and freezes the action by calling a "time out." While an up-tempo synthesizer track plays in the background, Proxmire teaches the bitterly divided congressmen to look at each other, open their minds, and work together instead of relying on threats and walkouts.
Another scene revolves around a heated appropriations dispute, and encourages lawmakers to always "S.H.I.N.E." by using the five steps of legislative cooperation: "Show respect, Hold back anger, Identify common ground, Nation first! and Emerge with compromise."
At another point, a split screen depicts two congressmen—a Democrat and Republican wearing blue and red hats, respectively—engaged in a shouting match over a bill's rider. The screen dissolves to reveal the two men facing away from each other, yelling in opposite directions. Proxmire then rotates the legislators' chairs around and switches their hats, teaching both a profound lesson in seeing government through the eyes of the opposition.
Despite the video's distinct message of compromise, cooperation, and not completely ignoring and then vilifying members of an opposing party, many lawmakers called it "unrealistic and outdated." Some claimed their time would have been better spent arguing over provisions of the upcoming health care reform bill.
"That's great: Here we are dealing with the worst recession since World War II and we have to watch a friggin' bipartisanship video," Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) said. "What a waste of time. I already saw that back in '97 when I first took office."
"This kind of Democratic grandstanding is exactly why I didn't read a single clause in the economic stimulus package before I voted against it," Enzi added.
Most lawmakers sat with members of their own party during the mandatory screening and spent the entirety of the afternoon slumped over in their chairs. While both sides mostly kept to themselves, there was one moment of bipartisanship during a scene in which Proxmire tells viewers to take a moment to cross the aisle and introduce themselves—to which someone loudly replied, "Yeah right," causing both parties to burst into laughter.
"I don't need some boring movie to teach me about partisanship," said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ), adding that he could not believe the junior senator from Alaska was actually taking notes. "I'm one of the most partisan people around. Ask anyone."
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) was also dismissive of the instructional film, saying that if he ever actually went along with its "corny" message of tolerance, he would lose the respect of everyone in Washington.
Said Risch, "Ooh, I just can't wait to listen to Democrats! I'm totally going to consider their feelings and long-term initiatives before voting. Pff. As if."
A small group of legislators, however, said they appreciated the viewing experience.
"I think it was pretty good," said Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who appeared in the film with a thick head of brown hair. "I wouldn't mind watching it a second time."
There are a number of other videos Congress is bound by law to watch periodically. The most commonly shown films include "Commerce Regulation And You," "Budgets Made Easy," "So You've Been Re-Elected…," and "Drunk Driving: Dying Under The Influence."
Upon conclusion of the video, Democratic and Republican leaders went out onto the National Mall for a smoke break and, after some levelheaded discussion, determined everything was the executive branch's fault.