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No one reads congressional committee reports. But will they watch a documentary?

Lawmakers pivot to video to explore economic disparity

A tourist takes a photo on the East Front of the Capitol on Oct. 11. It’s been a big year for video projects at the Capitol.
A tourist takes a photo on the East Front of the Capitol on Oct. 11. It’s been a big year for video projects at the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Chairman Jim Himes first floated the idea of having the House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth film a documentary as its final product, it went over like a lead balloon.

“Oh, everybody didn’t understand what we were doing,” said Eric Harris, the committee’s communications director and, along with Himes, a producer and co-creator of “Grit & Grace: The Fight for the American Dream.”

“We spoke with countless ethics lawyers, House Administration lawyers, general counsel — we had to talk with different documentarians to figure out if we could even pull something off like this,” Harris said.

They pulled it off in the end, debuting the 30-minute documentary narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker on Tuesday night at the National Archives. The famed “Sex and the City” actress wasn’t there, but there were plenty of Washington A-listers instead, like Reps. Dean Phillips, Bobby Scott, Gwen Moore and Bryan Steil, the select committee’s ranking member.

After the premiere, Steil praised Himes for getting the committee to “actually break out of the echo chamber of Washington,” but when asked if they were starting a movie-making trend, he demurred. “I don’t know the answer to that,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi created the select committee at the start of the current Congress with a goal of developing policy recommendations for broad economic growth. Now its time has expired, and the panel will disband in the new year as Republicans take control of the House.

The event was heralded as the first time a congressional committee waxed videographical, although that’s not true in the strictest sense — this fall, the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol aired a video account that riveted Washington’s chattering classes.

The documentary itself feels like it was designed by a committee. It recounts the struggles of three hard-working Americans: Alicia Villanueva, a Mexican immigrant in California who started selling tamales on the street to supplement her house cleaning income; Joseph Graham Jr., a Black college dropout who overcame adversity in many forms to eventually complete college, earn a master’s and start his own business; and Jeremy and Wendy Cook, a white couple in West Virginia who started their own decorative glass retail business out of their home so they could take care of their autistic twin sons.

Their stories are poignant, but not remarkably so. They aren’t the high drama that normally carry a feature documentary, but rather more like the illustrative accounts that lend color to TV news reports. The subjects explain the challenges they have faced or are still facing — Villanueva needed help learning how to run a company, Graham overcame racism and financial limitations to finish college, the Cooks’ still deal with rural West Virginia’s slow internet and an unwieldy bureaucracy for their adult children’s disability benefits that keep them from moving somewhere better for business.

But the film doesn’t offer any solutions or even articulate a specific problem common to the subjects beyond that life is hard, and harder still for the poor. It’s as if the filmmakers couldn’t agree on what to say, so they opted to say not much at all.

The committee paired the documentary with a 196-page bound report that reads like traditional congressional fare, complete with a minority views section at the end that calls the select committee itself little more than an attempt by Pelosi “to justify her ineffective, out-of-touch, and inflationary policies that have pushed America into a recession when the economy should have been roaring back to life after the pandemic ended.” (The majority’s section does highlight a number of pending bills with bipartisan support, some of which could arguably address the protagonists’ issues.)

The filmmakers also made confusing editorial decisions that sap emotional resonance from the documentary.

In the film, Villanueva describes selling the tamales on the street with her daughter strapped to her chest in a baby carrier. “I was so afraid, too, because in any moment, maybe the officials or police can say something,” she said.

The viewer is left to surmise that Villanueva’s fears stem from a lack of a permit — a problem solved after she serendipitously discovers some local nonprofits who help turn her side hustle into a legitimate business that now employs 22 workers. But during a panel discussion after the viewing, Himes noted that Villanueva was undocumented — a fact left out of the documentary and one that adds considerable weight to her stated fears. Getting fined by the cops for missing paperwork is one thing; potential deportation is another.

Asked about this omission, Harris swore that politics played no role in the cut. “It just wasn’t germane to this film,” he said. “The issue was: How do we put all the richness of our story in 30 minutes with two other families whose stories are just as rich? If we’re going to spend time talking about her immigration status and not time talking about what her journey looked like, then that would have been a major fault of ours.”

Harris said the committee wanted to produce something that real Americans would actually notice. Most committee reports go unread besides a few interested parties and the staff tasked with writing them, a fact Jeremy Cook alluded to on the panel. “I might be the only person here who did, but I read the entire final report,” he said, lamenting that the document reflects Democrats and Republicans conflicting views on potential legislation.

The idea, said Harris, was “to meet Americans where they’re at.”

But that doesn’t mean many people are actually watching. A day after it was uploaded to YouTube, the documentary had only been seen about 500 times as of noon Wednesday. That’s fewer views than a House Financial Services subcommittee hearing last week entitled “Unfinished Business: A Review of Progress Made and a Plan to Achieve Full Economic Inclusion for Every American.

When asked if he had a viewership number in mind, Harris deflected. “There is a metric that I am the most concerned about, and it’s the number three, and it’s those three families on stage,” Harris said. “That they feel that we showed their story with dignity, that we uplifted their voices in a way that’s never been done before, and that we help the country better understand their lives and better understand the challenges they face.”

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