24 September 2010

Members of Congress: Give Up YOUR Act

A number of Members of Congress (and some of the oh-so-serious DC punditry) are aghast at the notion that a comic actor named Stephen Colbert would arrive to testify before a Congressional subcommittee "in character."   As if this somehow diminishes the legislative process or mocks the seriousness of the issues Congress debates.  At the hearing a very senior member of Congress suggested Colbert was wasting everyone's time and said he should leave.  (Obviously he didn't.)

And I will say Colbert's appearance in DC crossed a line today - but it was a line that desperately needed to be crossed years ago.  Any Member of Congress who criticizes Colbert (or Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, who invited him to testify) better realize right quick that they do EXACTLY what Colbert does - only Colbert does it better than they do.

I was a Congressional staffer long enough to know that what politicians say while the cameras are rolling is profoundly different than what they say in private meetings.  Politicians have perfected the art of evading difficult questions and opining on fake issues.   You know, like holding up a defense authorization bill while we're fighting two wars  - not really because it repeals an unconstitutional law discriminating against gay people, but because you're suddenly concerned about the number of amendments you can offer. Or something.

I was a committee staffer long enough to know that hearings are more stagecraft than anything else - the Chairman wants to tell a story, invites witnesses who will tell that story, and works out questions and answers ahead of time. That's standard operating procedure, and it's been the case for Republicans and Democrats alike.

I've sat in on countless focus groups, run by Republican and Democratic pollsters, trying to figure out which words to use - you know, when people don't like what you're doing, just call it something else.  And I've seen Members of Congress go to the floors of the House and Senate and recite those focus-group-approved scripts, complete with spots in the remarks telling the reader when to pause and when to add emphasis, trying to look as if they care and knowing that they don't.

Here's something to keep in mind - if Colbert's presence somehow diminished the issue of immigration, then why did this subcommittee hearing get more attendance from Members of Congress than any other subcommittee hearing this year?  Typically a House Subcommittee hearing is attended by the Chair, the ranking member, and perhaps 2 or three other members.  Look at the video above and check out how many Members and staff were there.  I'm quite certain it wasn't because they were really interested in what the head of an organized group of migrant farm workers had to say.  This "fraud" Colbert did more to get people talking about immigration in five minutes than any ten of his critics did all year.

But here's the most important point - and it's what I have to say to all those Members, staff and pundits who got upset by Colbert's appearance.  You know how upset you feel right now at Colbert?  That's how the American public feels about YOU.  They think you're a fraud.  They think you're a bad joke. They know you're oblivious to real concerns of real people. At least with Colbert, the public is in on the joke.   Most members of Congress don't even know how to be sincere anymore - they only know how to appear sincere.

Stephen Colbert just showed members of Congress how the American public views THEM. And a lot of them didn't like it.



Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, you hit it dead center but do you think that THEY got it?


Julie @ The Mom Slant said...

Your post wins. ;)

I'm still naive enough where it comes to the workings of Congress that I thought they took their business seriously. I should have known better.

(I still don't think Lofgren should have invited Colbert, but that's because I'm feeling defensive on his behalf. He's getting all the flack, not her.)