No matter what it says about the great Washington legislative process, there is nothing quite like the glitz of a showbiz star's appearance on Capitol Hill to pump up an issue that lusts for attention.

Not that things necessarily change. Liberal Democrats tried it a couple of years ago, bringing country film-saga actresses Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek to bear witness at a hearing on the farm crisis, and ended up with a 1985 farm bill that none of them liked.

They tried again yesterday, one more effort to persuade the doubters that despite all the "happy talk," as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) put it tartly, the farm crisis continues and hurt still rides the countryside.

Harkin's featured guest at a Senate Agriculture subcommittee hearing was singer Willie Nelson and my, oh, my, how it set the inmates to rattling their cages. Nelson's inspiration, Farm Aid, has put more than $6 million into the channels of farmer advocacy and made him a demigod in the Farm Belt.

A good 20 minutes before the hearing was to begin, the room was full. Capitol cops sardined the overflow crowd into standing room. Late arrivals were stranded outside.

Six television cameras stood at the ready and two more would join the pack. Still photographers crouched at the front of the Dirksen Senate Office Building's Room 562, an extra-large hearing room, in anticipation of the event.

Print reporters who'd never before come close to covering a farm story perched attentively at the press tables and in extra chairs set aside for the heavy coverage. Some fiddled with recorders, fearful of missing the pearls.

At the appointed hour of 10, the witnesses elbowed into the room. Harkin led the way, followed by Nelson, clad in ponytail, ball cap and black T-shirt; singer John Cougar Mellencamp and an entourage of loyal supporters of The Cause.

The cause in this case was Harkin's legislative proposal to let farmers vote on whether they want to strictly limit their production to force higher prices. The issue is enormously controversial, as well as complicated, and even Harkin's warmest friends agree the bill isn't going very far.

But this was Harkin's day to make his case. He went through his spiel, then turned the mikes over to Nelson and Mellencamp.

It wasn't what one might have expected, but they delivered a boffo performance on behalf of heart and caring. If the subcommittee wasn't self-conscious, it should have been.

Nelson said that in every one of the 400 cities he had visited in the last two years, farmers told him things were worse, not better as some of their leaders were saying.

"My question is: How long does it take? . . . We're not here to get behind any one farm bill -- I'm not a policy expert. You guys are the smart guys, you tell me what to do, tell them {farmers} what to do," Nelson said.

The subcommittee listened somberly. Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) understood. "They trust you more than their politicians . . . . Farm Aid has epitomized your responsiveness. It is incumbent on us as politicians to be as responsive as you. We on this committee need to get our act together."