Jokes Point Out Real Farm Issues

Editor's note: The following editorial appeared last week in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If a fake pundit goes to Capitol Hill and makes news, are we supposed to take it seriously?

Some Republicans and Democrats in Congress were grumping about comedian Stephen Colbert's testimony Sept. 24 during a hearing on migrant workers.

Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican, wasn't the only one who didn't crack a smile when Colbert poked fun at the political process. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, tried to get Colbert to leave the proceedings without speaking at all. And on a Sunday morning TV talking-head show, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, called Colbert's appearance "inappropriate."

That was even though Colbert had been invited by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who headed the subcommittee hearing titled "Protecting America's Harvest."

If the honorable members of Congress were worried about trivializing serious work, they haven't spent much time watching C-SPAN.

Anyone who watched Colbert's statement could hear the delighted laughter when he concluded with a bipartisan dig: "I trust both sides will work on this together in the best interests of the American people - as you always do."

One of Colbert's strengths as a social commentator is his ability to use the on-camera persona of a self-absorbed "conservative" blowhard to find the chase in modern politics and cut directly to it.

Lofgren invited him to the Hill because he was one of 16 people who've taken the United Farm Workers' challenge to work a day as an agricultural laborer to focus on the issue of illegal immigrants picking the nation's crops. He picked beans and packed corn for 10 hours in Upstate New York. At the hearing, he noted how few non-farm workers have likewise tried it and then added that "the number may increase in the near future, as I understand many Democrats may be looking for work come November."

He said that as a free marketer he would normally leave the problem to the invisible hand of the market - then pointed out that the market has already sent 84,000 production acres and 22,000 farm jobs to Mexico and shut down a million acres of U.S. farmland "because apparently even the invisible hand doesn't want to pick beans."

He suggested that giving immigrants visas to work the farms could help provide safeguards against worker exploitation. With that, plus improved pay and working conditions, maybe Americans would be willing to take the jobs again. Or "maybe the easier answer is to just have scientists develop vegetables that pick themselves."

The satiric point: We could devise a doable, rational solution - or chase an absurd and impossible one.

Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat, asked Colbert why he took interest in the issue.

"I like talking about people who don't have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work and don't have any rights as a result, and yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave," he replied.

If the idea was to call attention to the problem and engage a broad array of people in debating it, that's happening. Maybe he's worth taking seriously after all.