Jed Rigney may have just done what few people have been able to, make a documentary that is political without being partisan. It's called Fools on the Hill, and it taps into the widespread conviction, held by those of every political stripe and inclination, that the American Congress is full of corrupt, grasping scalawags.
The impetus for the documentary is the quest of average Joe citizen Jerrol LeBaron to get legislation passed that would force legislators, at both the state and federal level, to read and fully understand any piece of legislation before voting "yes" on it, and to make the final text of the bill available for public perusal online prior to the vote. This seems to be a common sense requirement that would get broad support across the political spectrum, and it does, but Fools on the Hill shows just how entrenched are the interests opposed to such a measure, and how difficult it can be to make it happen.
The film alternates between interviews with actors, intellectuals and political advocates about the problems currently stymieing Congress, with plenty of examples, and following LeBaron as he spends months driving around North Dakota trying to gather enough signatures to get his Read the Bill legislation on the ballot. LeBaron (who lives in California) chose North Dakota as a starting point intending to tackle one state, and use his success there to move on to other states and perhaps gain some momentum. Even though he is not ultimately successful in gathering the total number of signatures that he needs, the film does offer an interesting insight into what it is like for an essentially one man operation to take on such a daunting challenge. LeBaron himself is quite likeable, and meets a number of interesting folks as he treks around the state, and even teams up with a group fireworks wholesalers, helping them on a ballot initiative of their own in return for their help on his.
This part of the film is interesting, and puts a human face on the issue, but it's the other section where the meat of the matter is. The filmmakers interview a wide range of people, mostly activists or political professionals of some kind, but definitely from both the left and the right. Some of these people might not seem particularly weighty, such as Dean Cain or Ed Begley, Jr. (and a few assorted talk radio folks), but there are enough college professors, former legislators, think tank fellows and political consultants to lend the appropriate heft to the discussion. The examples used also are in areas advocated by both sides of the American political divide. The recent bailout and stimulus bills are singled out for criticism, but so also is the Arizona immigration legislation. Of course, the evils that everyone loves to hate, lobbyists and pork barrel spending, are also skewered. As each side's oxen are gored, the film seems to make a point to avoid partisanship. And for the most part they do so admirably, though they may be sacrificing the revenue and attention they might have generated by tossing red meat to one side or the other.
Even though the interview subjects are from both the left and the right, no one was interviewed who opposed the basic concept behind the Read the Bill idea. This is something of a weakness in the film, and while it is hard to think of a sustainable defense of the proposition that legislators ought not be required to read the bills on which they vote, surely there is someone out there who could give it a spirited try. Perhaps the filmmakers tried to find such a person and failed, but this wasn't indicated, though clips were shown of a couple of congressmen stating in other contexts that it was unreasonable to expect them to read a large bill before voting.
Fools on the Hill effectively lays out its case for requiring legislators to read bills before voting on them, and puts a sympathetic human face on the issue in the likeable person of Jerrol LeBaron. It lacks some of the fun of a really juicy polemic, but it also avoids the cheap shots and overblown rhetoric that come part and parcel with such fare. And it injects some much needed civility that modern political discourse is sore in need of. All in all, it's a nice overview of the ideological landscape in this area, and put together quite competently in all the technical areas. Highly recommended.