Stephen Colbert brought a dose of his trademark "truthiness" in testimony before a House subcommittee hearing Friday on the conditions faced by the nation's farmworkers. The encounter produced some awkward moments and pointed asides -- beginning nearly at the outset, when House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers requested that Colbert refrain from testifying and submit only written comments. (The chairman withdrew the request soon afterward.)
Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of California, in her opening statement, commended Colbert for using his celebrity to draw media attention to the hearing.
"Maybe it was [President Clinton's] impeachment? But it's been a long time since we've had this kind of coverage," Lofgren said.
The overall tone of Friday's hearing was serious: a discussion on the future of the American farm industry, which heavily relies on illegal immigrants as workers. But Colbert -- who plays an intemperate, right-leaning Bill O'Reilly-style host on "The Colbert Report" -- remained in character, peppering his testimony with sarcastic comments, which gently mocked himself as well as the staid atmosphere of the hearing room.
Colbert joked of his "vast experience" as a farm laborer, which consisted of one day spent picking vegetables -- an experience that grew out of an on-air interview with Lofgren.
One way to address the labor ills of the agricultural sector, Colbert joked, is for Americans to "stop eating fruits and vegetables … and if you look at obesity statistics, people already have." Colbert added that his gastroenterologist had suggested that most such food is unnecessary roughage. Colbert called to submit a video of his colonoscopy into the record.
Colbert also suggested Americans find plants that "pick themselves" and raise the soil level so workers don't have to bend over.
The crowd occasionally burst into laughter during Colbert's remarks, while some Democratic members and their staff smirked from their perches in the hearing room. Most of the committee's Republican members did not appear amused.
After Colbert's five-minute statement, Conyers noted that Colbert's remarks dramatically differed from the prepared testimony he submitted.
Republicans and Democrats alike challenged Colbert's presence before and even during the hearing. "Would you call yourself an expert witness when it comes to our labor issues or not?" Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked the talk show host. Colbert responded that he was testifying at Lofgren's invitation.
California Democratic Rep. Judy Chu noted that Republicans have also proposed celebrity witnesses in the past, such as Loretta Swit from television show "MASH." Lofgren, for her part, compared Colbert to celebrities such as Bono and Angelina Jolie, who had also used their renown to publicize important causes on Capitol Hill.
Colbert said he was "happy to use my celebrity to draw attention" to this issue, and joked that he hoped his presence would bump coverage of the committee hearings "all the way up to CSPAN1." (The hearing was shown on CSPAN3.)
During the hearing, members and speakers addressed the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs" effort, which seeks to place unemployed Americans in farming jobs. Lofgren and others said the effort has been widely unsuccessful, in part because illegal immigrants are the only ones willing to do the jobs.
But Rep. Steve King of Iowa -- the committee's ranking Republican -- and other GOP committee members argued that the real problem lies with agricultural employers who fail to provide attractive jobs that appeal to legal Americans. Americans will do the work, King contended -- "they just want to be paid a respectable wage" for it.
Conyers invited King to work together to get more Americans in farmworker jobs -- a challenge King said he would accept, even though Conyers clearly believed that such an initiative would not pan out.
And in winding down his own remarks, Colbert got serious for a moment, leaving no doubt which side of the issue he came down on. He wanted to appear before the committee in order to speak up for farmworkers, he said, because "migrant workers suffer and they have no rights."