Colbert and Capitol Hill

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Outrage and embarrassment erupted in Congress recently as some members of the legislature, and the media, were incensed by occurrences on Capitol Hill. Such anger was to be expected, given the bipartisan bickering that has engulfed the Capitol as a result of the failure to repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and the inability to come to a decision about whether to extend the Bush tax cuts. This time, Congress wasn’t angry over its own failure to accomplish anything whatsoever. Rather, some felt it necessary to express concern about Stephen Colbert’s recent testimonial before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Security regarding his experience working as a migrant farm worker.

Not long ago, the comedian featured a segment on his show, “The Colbert Report,” in which he participated in the “Take Our Jobs” program created by the United Farm Workers. In the segment, the organization offered average Americans the farm jobs currently held by immigrant workers. Colbert was one of 16 people throughout the nation who participated in the program, packing corn and picking beans in the fields to gain insight into the difficult conditions migrant farm workers face on a daily basis. Now, in reality, he spent all of one day on a farm in New York, joking and having fun as usual, but he was still invited by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren to testify before Congress on immigration issues. This allowed him to join the esteemed ranks of other honorable people to testify before Congress including Elmo from Sesame Street.

Some congressmen and media outlets decided to take Colbert’s appearance a little too seriously and went on the warpath, accusing him of embarrassing Congress and not taking the situation seriously. While it befuddles me to imagine that a Comedy Central comedian known for his crazy antics would not take a congressional hearing seriously, several congressional members attacked Colbert for making a mockery of the legislative process, trivializing the immigration issue and wasting taxpayer money and valuable time.

These concerns seem quite reasonable, unless you actually take a look at the hearing and come to realize that Colbert, who chose to testify “in character,” never intended to be taken seriously. He made that clear from the get-go, acknowledging that he had no real experience in the field and saying quite frankly, “I am happy to use my celebrity to draw attention to this important [and] complicated issue.” It seems difficult to understand how he can be accused of trivializing an issue that, had it not been for him, most people would probably never have heard anything about.

As for Colbert’s testimony itself, his jokes, which usually result in laughter and cheers from his studio audience, mainly fell on deaf ears in the confines of the hearing room. This created an awkward atmosphere reminiscent of the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, where his jokes aimed at President Bush made some uncomfortable. Throughout his testimony, however, there were moments of sincerity that revealed Colbert’s personal support for the cause as he joked, “I’m not a fan of the government doing anything, but why isn’t the government doing anything?”

The most earnest moment of the hearing was when Colbert, breaking out of character to defend his decision to attend the hearing, explained, “I like talking about people who have no power.” He described the injustice of asking migrants to come to the U.S. to work, not giving them any rights and then asking them to leave. Of course, the very same media outlets and politicians who criticized Colbert for being an embarrassment to Congress just happened to overlook his last, sincere comments.

This is not the first time Colbert has blurred the line between punditry and the actual political world. However, given the plethora of unsolved problems facing Americans today, instead of wasting time dwelling on the consequences of a comedian’s five-minute testimony, Congress needs to get back to work. Whether they are trying to use this issue as part of their political campaigns or they truly believed the testimony to be an atrocious injustice, their internal strife simply goes to expose the dysfunctional circus of the legislature and reveals the ineptitude of those whom Americans rely on to lead their country. At this point, Congress doesn’t have the right to accuse anyone of embarrassing the legislative process — they’ve done a great job of doing that all on their own.

Sara Bangloria is a third-year business administration major. She can be reached at sbanglor@uci.edu.

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