Like Elle Woods herself, the movie “Legally Blonde 2” is actually much smarter than people assume. In fact, its depiction of an arcane legislative maneuver has been hailed as one of the most accurate moments in movies about Congress.
Now that the House of Representatives is close to actually following that blueprint, screenwriter Kate Kondell said she’s proud to have played a role in “introducing mainstream America to this pretty esoteric legislative strategy.”
On Tuesday, House Republicans came within a handful of votes of successfully forcing a vote on immigration bills using something known as a “discharge petition,” essentially a Hail Mary pass to get around Speaker Paul Ryan, who would not allow the bills to come to the floor.
If Republicans backing the maneuver can gather 218 signatures, they’ll force votes on a group of bills which would extend protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
“Legally Blonde” aside, discharge petitions are quite rare — and typically not successful. A 2003 study by the Congressional Research Service found that only 16% of discharge petition attempts were either completed or indirectly led to legislation being considered.
In that sense, they’re not that dissimilar from the talking filibuster that Sen. Jefferson Smith uses in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” an unusual move popularized by a movie, a comparison Kondell herself has made in the past.
In the movie, Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, discovers that a prominent makeup company is using the mother of her dog, Bruiser, for cosmetic testing, but when her anti-animal testing bill is blocked by a House committee, she gathers enough signatures on a discharge petition to force a vote.
The screenwriter says she didn’t start out as a legislative expert. All she knew was that she needed to give her main character an obstacle.
“From what I recall, we basically wanted Elle Woods to find herself in a real legislative pickle,” she explained. “We needed to put her in a situation where she faced seemingly insurmountable legislative odds and roadblocks and came out the other side with a bill passed into law.”
To figure out what exactly that scenario would be, Kondell reached out to someone who, she says, “knew a lot more about such things than I did.” Tim Groseclose, a current professor at George Mason University, was a colleague of her husband at the time at Stanford University.
Groseclose recalled that over a handful of meetings over coffee, he suggested a number of ideas, including the discharge petition among them. His favorite suggestion was using a legislative rider — amending another bill with a proposal that wouldn’t necessarily pass on its own — but Kandell didn’t think it was dramatic enough.
“Fortunately, Kate could see further than I could,” he laughs. “She realized that the discharge petition would be a really good humor device for the movie. … It was pink and scented. You couldn’t do that with any of the other tactics.”
In thanks, Kondell named the character who suggests the discharge petition in the movie Timothy, and Groseclose has often shown the scene to his students in class as an example of a political turning point when it seems like there’s no way forward.
As his character tells Woods in the movie: “I mean, none of us ever thought one person could make a difference until you came along.”