Colbert brings down the House - some of it

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 8:38 PM

Stephen Colbert plays an angry conservative man on television. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) plays one every moment of his life. On Friday morning, they met in the hearing room of the House Judiciary Committee. The result was kind of funny.

Colbert had been called to testify about his pet issue, the plight of migrant farmworkers. King's pet issue is also migrant farmworkers, but he wants to get rid of them and replace them with "everyday American workers."

"Maybe we should be spending less time watching Comedy Central and more time considering all the real jobs that are out there, ones that require real hard labor," King said bitterly. He invoked the "Joe the Plumbers of the world who, many days, would prefer the aroma of fresh dirt to that of the sewage from American elitists who disparage them even as they flush."

There were groans in the committee room.

Colbert, in character, delivered his opening statement. "This is America! I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian."

King glowered at the witness.

When it was his turn to question the witness, King said he had watched a YouTube video purporting to show Colbert packing corn while working on a farm for a day. "I thought it was curious," King said, "that on the farm where you harvested the corn, I was watching you actually unloading the crate rather than loading a crate."

Colbert appeared to get serious. "I was packing corn. I was a cornpacker," he insisted. "I know that term is offensive to some people because cornpacker is a derogatory term for a gay lifestyle."

Washington isn't exactly Comedy Central, but the Judiciary Committee is a center of comedy of the unintentional variety. Committee members performed their roles for more than two hours.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee conducting the hearing, played the star-struck groupie. "His actions are a good example of how using both levity and fame, a media figure can bring attention to a critically important issue for the good of the nation," she gushed, making time to mention his show's 15 Emmy nominations.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) performed the role of old eccentric guy. "I would like to recommend that, now that we've got all this attention, that you excuse yourself," he suggested. "I'm asking you to leave the committee room completely and submit your statement instead."

There were moans of protest from the audience, and Lofgren dissuaded the erratic Conyers from pursuing this tack.

Finally, after 35 minutes of the lawmakers' warm-up act, it was time for the witnesses. "I certainly hope that my star power can bump this hearing all the way up to C-SPAN 1," Colbert joked.

The Democrats laughed. The Republicans did not.

"America's farms are presently far too dependent on immigrant labor to pick our fruits and vegetables. Now, the obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables and, you look at the recent obesity statistics, you'll see that many Americans have already started," he said.

Everyone was still on the Republican side.

"Unfortunately . . . they are a necessary source of roughage. As evidence, I would like to submit a video of my colonoscopy into the congressional record."

More stone faces.

When Colbert noted that there might be more migrant workers because "many Democrats may be looking for work come November," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) finally cracked a smile. When Colbert complained that picking beans required him to bend over because "most soil is at ground level," Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-Calif.) allowed a smile to escape.

Yet through it all - when Colbert suggested that fruits could pick themselves ("the genetic engineers over at Fruit of the Loom have made great strides in human-fruit hybrids"); when he said that memory of his day of field work causes him to "break into a cold sweat at the sight of a salad bar"; when he closed with "I yield the balance of my time - USA, number one" - King didn't so much as grin.

Colbert largely stuck to his stage persona. Was the farm work hard? "Certainly harder work than this." Does he favor immigration reform? "It's time to roll up our sleeves and face this issue mano a - whatever the Spanish word for mano is." Does he endorse the GOP "Pledge to America"? "I endorse all Republican policy without question."

After he made the "cornpacker" joke, Colbert dropped his Bill O'Reilly routine. When Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) asked why he chose migrant workers as his pet issue, he scratched his head. "I like talking about people who don't have any power, and it just seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don't have any rights," he said. He then quoted a biblical verse: "Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers . . ."

The punch line never came. It was awkward for everybody.

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