Congressional Immigration Hearings as Comedy Central

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on September 24, 2010

It's not quite the aura of seriousness and purpose that House members, and especially Democratic House members, might want to convey shortly before what is shaping up to be an historic midterm election.

Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert testified before a House immigration subcommittee hearing by chairwoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) titled, "Protecting America's Harvest." He was invited because he had taken up United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez on a challenge to experience life as a field worker. Colbert did so for one day and used that experience as a comedy segment on his show.

The House Judiciary subcommittee, at which Colbert testified, was holding a hearing on a migrant farm workers bill, the so-called AgJOBS bill, a proposal that would give illegal immigrant farm workers a pathway to legal status (and set up a system to import more of them in the future). This is serious business for some, but apparently not for all.

Colbert's visit was not the first time that a media celebrity had testified. What was different about this testimony was that Colbert testified "in character." That character was no doubt part of the reason for his invitation.

Colbert's character on his show for Comedy Central is that of a, "bombastic conservative pundit to discuss illegal immigrants and American jobs." Or, as a Washington Post news report put it, "a fake blowhard before a panel of real pontificators." (Watch the full hearing here.)

What that means in Colbert's case is that your character takes the most extreme immigration positions and attributes them, by being in character, to a bombastic conservative Republican pundit. You get it, right? Any concerns about illegal immigration and the wages of farm workers are simply ridiculed – reduction ad absurdum – not seriously engaged.

So there is a seriousness of effort on Rep. Lofgren's part in inviting Colbert, if not in the consequences. As Salon notes Colbert is, "one of the two most effective mouthpieces for the progressive political agenda in the nation," and further that "Colbert's presence makes his young, liberal viewers interested in the subject of immigration reform."

And true to the person behind the comic persona, Colbert testified that agricultural labor was hard work and according to the Washington Post, "His message: Working on a farm is so hard that Americans don't want to do it, so immigration and labor laws should be reformed to allow illegal crop workers a clean path to citizenship."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) – who sits on the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law – wasn't amused and called the hearing a "joke." He went on, "We have never, ever had a substantive discussion on any immigration issue ... and they're calling Colbert as their first guy?"

Even some Democrats were not amused. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen said, "Picking vegetables for 10 hours doesn't make you an expert in anything, except how unpleasant it is to pick vegetables for 10 hours. I think using an actor in character to give testimony makes a mockery of the committee process."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, tried to pull the plug on Colbert's testimony by saying, "I would like to recommend that now we got all this attention that you excuse yourself and you let us get on with the three witnesses and all the other members there," he said. "I'm asking you to leave the committee room completely, and submit your statement."

Anytime, you have to depend on John Conyers to rescue the dignity of congressional committee hearings, your party is in deep trouble.