October 6, 2010
It's hard to imagine how the American public's opinion of Congress could get much worse than it is already, but last week, Representative Zoe Lofgren tested this notion when she invited Comedy Central comedian and faux pundit Stephen Colbert to testify on Capitol Hill. At a time when our nation faces many serious challenges - and our representatives face reelection - such a bizarre and inappropriate stunt leaves little doubt that many politicians in Washington are out of touch, and in serious need of a reality check.
The catalyst for these Capitol Hill hijinks was the new "Take Our Jobs" campaign launched this summer by the United Farm Workers union. The ostensible purpose of the campaign is to draw attention to the crucial role that undocumented workers play in America's food supply chain while debunking the notion that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens. When Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert caught wind of the campaign, he announced his plans to spend a day in the shoes of a migrant farm worker, and invited Representive Zoe Lofgren, Chairman of the House Sub-Committee on Citizenship, Refugees, Immigration and Border Security, to make a cameo appearance on his show, which aired on September 22nd. Two days later, in a theatrical role reversal, Mr. Colbert made a cameo appearance of his own before Congress, having been invited by Chairman Lofgren to testify about his one-day experience as a migrant farm worker.
Reaction from Lofgren's colleagues was mixed. The move was roundly condemned by Republicans as an outrageous misuse of time and money, not to mention an insult to the American public. Democrats were put in the odd position of trying to justify the stunt as technically legitimate while acknowledging that it may have been perceived as inappropriate. Some, like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, threw concerns for party solidarity to the wind, making no bones about his disapproval of Colbert's testimony.
Colbert's invitation was not the first time an elected representative invited a celebrity to appear on Capitol Hill. It was, however, the first time a prominent celebrity satirist has been invited to testify, tongue firmly planted in cheek, based upon "experience" gained during a comedy sketch.
Does Chairwoman Lofgren honestly believe that Mr. Colbert's testimony was a wise expenditure of taxpayer dollars? Does she genuinely believe that it lent credibility to the cause of undocumented migrant farm workers or illumination to the immigration debate at large? Does she believe that hosting a Capitol Hill comedy hour is a better use of her time and position than, perhaps, scheduling hearings to investigate the ethics charges pending against two of her Democratic colleagues?
These are the kinds of questions on the minds of many Americans this week - Americans who are tired of the arrogance and condescension of politicians so mired in the Beltway Bubble that they think nothing of dropping $125,000 on a televised dog-and-pony show that accomplishes nothing and makes a mockery of the American political process.
Was Colbert's testimony humorous? Sure. Was it appropriate? Absolutely not. Let no one accuse the American public of lacking a sense of humor. We know how to take a joke. When it comes to issues like the economy and national security, however, we'd just rather our elected officials not make jokes - literally - at our expense. Members of Congress please take note. Otherwise, come November, you may find that the joke's on you.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of "Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty" He is also Chairman of the Center for a Just Society.
Photo by Scott Gries (PictureGroup), Comedy Central