Stephen Colbert congressional testimony: Why was he invited?

Stephen Colbert’s appearance before a congressional committee Friday to discuss migrant labor issues has left many Democrats unhappy.

Alex Brandon/AP Photo
Comedian Stephen Colbert, host of the Colbert Report, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, before the House Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law subcommittee hearing on Protecting America's Harvest.

Comedian Stephen Colbert’s star turn before a congressional committee Friday did not leave all House Democrats in stitches. Instead, it tied some of them in knots. On Sunday, House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland gave vent to the unhappiness with the Colbert incident that many in his party caucus feel.

“I think his testimony was not appropriate,” Representative Hoyer said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Hmm. Perhaps Hoyer did not like the part where Mr. Colbert, pressed on his credentials as an expert witness on migrant labor issues, said, “I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert on something.”

Or maybe it was when Colbert, who spent a day working on a farm via the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” program, said he did not know how much migrant labor was paid.

“I didn’t do a good enough job to get paid, so I can’t compare my salary to anyone,” said Colbert. “I was actually asked to leave.”

Or maybe the breaking point was when Colbert – whose in-character persona is that of a conservative talk-show host – said, “I endorse all Republican policy without question.”

But Colbert appeared before the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee at the invitation of its chairman – Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. Representative Lofgren has been interviewed on Colbert’s show, so presumably she had a pretty good idea of what was coming. Why would she invite a loose cannon of a witness to testify before her panel with the midterm elections just over a month away?

The short answer may be that she wanted to raise the profile of the migrant labor issue – and that the political situation in her district is far different from the one for the House Democratic Caucus as a whole.

Lofgren is as close to a certain bet for reelection this fall as it is possible for a member of the House to be. She is an eight-term incumbent and represents one of the most liberal parts of northern California – the 16th District, an area to the southeast of San Francisco Bay.

According to Federal Election Commission records, she does not have Republican competition. (There is an independent running for the seat, Edward Gonzalez, but his campaign treasury is a small fraction of Lofgren’s.)

Lofgren is “safely settled” in the 16th District, writes political analyst Charlie Cook in his 2010 election outlook.

Thus Lofgren, even with an election looming, can afford to focus on her work as a subcommittee chairman. She can aim at getting publicity for the plight of migrant workers, which is an important issue to her region.

Do we need to tell you that Democrats as a whole are not as comfortable as Lofgren? The party could well lose control of the House this fall, as the sour economy and a throw-the-bums-out mood combine to make the political environment terrible for the party in power.

Thus Hoyer is looking at Colbert’s appearance from a different position. He probably thinks that the last thing the party needs is to invite a witness before Congress who will make off-color jokes involving produce. Republicans can now point to the Colbert appearance and say it shows that Democrats aren’t serious about governing.

Which they are already doing. It showed up as a GOP talking point on Monday, when Rep. Kevin Brady (R) of Texas said on Fox News that Democrats should be able to hold a vote on extending Bush-era tax cuts before the election. “If they’ve got time to have a hearing with Stephen Colbert, they have time to take a vote on extending tax relief," he said.

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