Congress Has Long Relied on the Wisdom of Stars, from Elmo to Affleck

Ben Affleck
Last week we learned that Ben Affleck would testify in front of Congress, again Jason Reed/Reuters

Last week we learned that Ben Affleck would testify in front of Congress (specifically, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) as part of a panel of experts on… Congo. A collective "huh??" went up from many, but to those who have followed Affleck's career, it isn't so shocking – and it's not his first time at the Congressional rodeo. In 2001, Affleck testified at a Senate hearing on "The Promise of the Genomic Revolution" after becoming friends with a boy who had the disease ataxia-telangiectasia.

And then, four years ago, Affleck found his cause célèbre. He teamed up with Whitney Williams, head of Seattle-based advisory firm WilliamsWorks, and created the Eastern Congo Initiative. Affleck has testified twice on Congo before the House, but had yet to score an audience with the more august Senate on the subject. Until now. On Wednesday night Affleck will join Russ Feingold, the U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Roger Meece, former U.S. ambassador to Congo, in front of the Senate.

Detractors sniff at the thought of a celebrity testifying as an expert in most anything. As likely as not, the average celebrity may have no more knowledge on the subject at hand than, say, someone who has read The Economist and perhaps taken a casual trip to the country in question.

There are also concerns about celebrities using causes to burnish their own reputations and feed their egos. Or, in a few cases, trying to make a buck.

Still, they keep coming back. There's a long history of celebrity testimony. Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights).

1. Kevin Costner

In 2010, the "Waterworld" actor testified before Congress to discuss how his company, Ocean Therapy Solutions, could help clean up the BP oil spill using machines that separate water from crude oil. "Am I up here hawking my product? I guess," Costner said.

2. Elmo

The "Sesame Street" muppet, who was referred to in official transcripts as "Mr. Monster," testified in the third person before the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee in 2002. Elmo helpfully added things like: "Elmo knows that there is music in Elmo's friends all over the country, but some of them just don't know it yet. They don't know how to find their music. So that's why Elmo needs Congress to help."

3. Tommy Lasorda

In 1998, the legendary baseball manager gave a World Series-worthy performance when he got all fired up while testifying in favor of the amendment to ban the burning of the American flag. While banging his fists on the table, Lasorda said: "Baseball, like the American flag and the national anthem, ties everyone in this great country of ours together."

4. Ron Howard

Directing "Apollo 13" scored Ron Howard a seat before a House committee exploring the need for continued U.S. space exploration in 1997. Howard was humble enough to emphasize that he was not, in fact, an expert – he was just a director of a movie.

5. Stephen Colbert

In 2010 Colbert – in character as his Comedy Central character Stephen Colbert – went before the house to testify on immigration. During that interview, Colbert tried to submit his colonoscopy video into the Congressional record, and then said he didn't want to eat tomatoes "picked by a Mexican." Instead, "I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian," he testified.

6. Michael Crichton

The international best-selling author appeared before the Senate in 2005 to testify that global warming wasn't such a big deal. No, really.

According to The New York Times, Crichton, who died in 2008, spent two hours "hewing to his firm belief that lawmakers should examine more closely 'whether the methodology of climate science is sufficiently rigorous to yield a reliable result.'"