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In the Crossfire

Capitol Hill's galaxy of star witnesses

(CNN) -- Some lawmakers are objecting to the frequent use of celebrities at congressional hearings to generate publicity.

Last week, U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, skipped a Senate Environment and Public Works Clean Air Subcommittee hearing on coal-mining mountaintop removal because he said he didn't want to hear from Kevin Richardson, a member of the Backstreet Boys. Voinovich accused the panel of running a sideshow.

Actor Robert Conrad and Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online, stepped into the "Crossfire" with co-hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak to discuss the issue.

NOVAK: Mr. Conrad, I want to read a little bit more what Sen. Voinovich said. Sen. Voinovich is a very serious person. He is not a joke. He's former governor of the state of Ohio, highly respected. He said, "I object to those that are brought in for show business. The witness was put in as an afterthought because someone thought it would add to the glamour of the hearing and attract media attention."

That's the only reason these people are brought in, isn't it?

CONRAD: No, not necessarily. I say maybe they're brought in, Bob, because they have a commitment. I don't think when Muhammad Ali was there, or when Michael J. Fox was talking about Parkinson's disease that that was for glitz or show business. First of all, they both suffered from that. And I think they wanted to make the public more aware than they normally would be, if it were just a senator from Ohio.

And it's unfortunate, senator, that you're Republican. It's good for you that I don't live in Ohio. I am a Republican. But you wouldn't get my vote after that remark.

NOVAK: Well, Mr. Conrad, let me explain to you how far this thing can go. The other day, they brought in Elmo -- who I'm told is a puppet, not a real human being on "Sesame Street." And they brought him in to testify for $2 million appropriation for children's books. Now hasn't the legislative process declined? To get attention, you have to bring in a puppet?

CONRAD: Robert, let me say this here if I may. Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said if they get a celebrity in there, the cameras will follow. And what might have been a hidden or invisible issue will suddenly become a matter of public discussion. And that's what our elected officials are supposed to listen to: public discussion.

BEGALA: Yes, Mr. Goldberg, it sounds like Mr. Conrad -- who's a Republican -- makes a lot of sense to me.

Let me first set the record straight on Elmogate. He did appear in Congress on April 24, 2002. Three weeks before that, he appeared at the White House, I think. So let's take a look at the issue of hypocrisy. Bush had brought Elmo to the White House, which is fine with me.

CONRAD: I liked you up to then, Begala. I'm sending you back to Texas.

BEGALA: George Voinovich, the senator we've been talking about, in fact in April of 1997 as the governor of Ohio, was trying to raise awareness of his own commitment to early childhood education.

You know what he did? He reached out to celebrity: Rob Reiner, famous as an actor from "All in the Family," since then as a great director -- "Stand by Me" and other films.

So isn't this really just about hypocrisy on the part of Voinovich? He's done the very same thing, having an actor come and promote one of his proposals. And now all of a sudden, he's whining about it because he wants to hide from the fact that they're chopping the heads off of mountains.

GOLDBERG: Well, I don't think it's necessarily hypocritical to point out that this kid from the Backstreet Boys doesn't necessarily have any expertise. He claims his own expertise is that he's flown over a couple of mountains.

I can guarantee you; there are a lot of experts who have flown over a bunch of mountains who can give better and more serious testimony.




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