WASHINGTON, Sept. 24, 2010— -- Stephen Colbert launched a comedy sneak attack on Congress Friday.
He submitted serious testimony to a judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue of farm workers and immigration, but when it was his turn to speak, the talk show host slipped into character as a satirical conservative to make his points in support of more favored status for migrant farm laborers.
"This is America," he told the panel. "I don't want a tomato picked by a Mexican," he said. "We do not want immigrants doing this labor."
He tried to enter images from his colonoscopy into the Congressional Record during a riff on how Americans should eat less roughage. Then Colbert recalled his day spent picking vegetables at an upstate New York farm earlier this summer.
"I'll admit, I started my day with a preconceived notion of immigrant labor," he said.
"I have to say, and I do mean this sincerely: Please don't make me do this again. It is really, really hard," Colbert said, pretending to choke up.
And he didn't stop there.
On the bill dealing with immigrant workers, Colbert quipped, "Like most members of Congress, I haven't read it." He sarcastically expressed confidence that as the bill moves forward, "both sides will work together as you always do."
That was one of the rare jokes that actually drew a good laugh from the packed committee room.
Colbert then concluded his opening statement by saying, "USA, No. 1."
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was not amused. "Mr. Colbert's submitted statement was considerably different from the one that he presented," he said.
Before Colbert had started to testify, Conyers asked Colbert to submit his written statement and leave the room before testifying. The congressman later withdrew that request.
Colbert's sarcasm continued when he was questioned by lawmakers. Asked by the panel's ranking Republican, Lamar Smith of Texas, how many workers had joined him during his day on the New York farm, Colbert replied, "I didn't take a count. I'm not good at math." When Smith asked how many of them were illegal, Colbert replied, "I didn't ask them for their papers, although I had a strong urge to."
Smith asked Colbert if that one day on the farm made him an expert. Colbert replied, "I believe one day of me studying anything makes me an expert."
And asked if he endorsed GOP policies, Colbert said, "I endorse all Republican policies without question," prompting Smith to thank Colbert for his endorsement of the Republicans' just-unveiled Pledge to America.
Smith asked if working in the apple orchard was hard work. "It is harder work than this," Colbert shot back, referring to his appearance before Congress.
Colbert did break character once during his testimony. He was asked by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., why he chose this issue.
"I like talking about people who don't have any power. And this seems to be [about] people without any power," he said, arguing that migrant workers "don't have any rights."
"We invite them here and ask them to leave," he said.
Colbert Testimony Prompts Committee Squabble
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauded the testimony, even if a good chunk of it was delivered in character.
"Of course I think it's appropriate. He's an American, right?" Pelosi said. "He comes before the committee, he has a point of view, he can bring attention to an important issue like immigration. I think it's great."
But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa., the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, thought there was nothing appropriate about Colbert's appearance.
"I think that he mocked the hearing process," King told reporters after the hearing. "I think it was his intent to do that."
Colbert's appearance on Capitol Hill today almost ended before it began.
Conyers, chairman of the full Judiciary committee, asked Colbert to submit his written statement and leave the room before testifying.
"I'm not asking you not to talk," Conyers told Colbert. "I'm asking you to leave the committee room completely and submit your statement instead."
Conyers' request drew groans from the massive crowd assembled at the hearing.
"I think many are eager to hear his comments," the subcommittee's chairman Zoe Lofgren told Conyers.
After forgetting to turn on his microphone, Colbert responded to Conyers' request.
"I'm here at the invitation of the [subcommittee] chairwoman, and if she would like me to remove myself from the hearing I am happy to do so," he said.
Since Lofgren wanted Colbert to stay, he stayed. It's no surprise that Lofgren wanted him to testify -- she invited him to the hearing in the first place, and as she noted, his appearance has drawn far more attention to the subcommittee hearing than it would ordinarily receive.
"Maybe it was impeachment, but it's been a long time since we've had this much coverage," Lofgren said.
The testimony Colbert submitted before the hearing was far more serious than the schtick he used in front of the microphones.
"I am here today to share my experience as an entertainer turned migrant worker and to shed light on what it means to truly take one of the millions of jobs filled by immigrant labor," Colbert planned to tell the panel, according to his prepared testimony. "They say that you truly know a man after you've walked a mile in his shoes and, while I have nowhere near the hardships of these struggling immigrants, I have been granted a sliver of insight."
As ABC's Devin Dwyer has reported, Colbert's involvement in the issue dates back to July when United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez appeared on Colbert's show, "The Colbert Report." The next month, Colbert traveled to pick vegetables at a farm in upstate New York, part of a campaign by the UFW to invite U.S. citizens and legal residents to replace immigrant farm workers. To date, only seven people have done so.
Colbert's appearance on the Hill has drawn fire from Republicans, who have argued that his testimony will be a joke. On Thursday, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called Colbert a fake newscaster who will be speaking at a fake hearing.