Stars Come Out On Capitol Hill; Ohio Senator Has Had Enough - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Stars Come Out On Capitol Hill; Ohio Senator Has Had Enough

By MALIA RULON, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - C-SPAN is looking more like "Entertainment Tonight" these days.

Check out the glitterati who have shown up at congressional hearings recently: Julia Roberts. Christie Brinkley. Michael J. Fox. And now Kevin Richardson of the pop group Backstreet Boys.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, says enough is enough. Political analysts agree there's a fine line between celebrities with legitimate expertise and those who have been invited to appear before Congress just to draw media attention.

Fox and former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali told members of Congress last month that more money is needed to turn scientific findings into a cure for Parkinson's disease, which they both have.

It's the Backstreet Boy who has Voinovich (pictured, above) fuming.

Richardson was invited to Thursday's hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee to testify on mountaintop mining, a controversial practice in which the top of a ridge or mountain is sheared off to expose a coal seam. Dirt and rock waste then is pushed into nearby valleys and waterways.

Voinovich boycotted the hearing and invoked a Senate rule that cut the hearing short. The hearing lasted less than two hours.

"It's just a joke to think that this witness can provide members of the United States Senate with information on important geological and water quality issues," Voinovich said Wednesday. "We're either serious about the issues or we're running a sideshow."

Last year, pop singers Alanis Morissette and Don Henley told a congressional panel that artists' concerns have been ignored during legal battles between recording labels and Internet companies like Napster.

"Certainly, members of the entertainment community have expertise on many issues that are important for Congress to consider," Voinovich said. "This isn't a case like that."

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., opened Thursday's hearing by defending his invitation to Richardson.

"Mr. Richardson is here as more than a well-known celebrity," Lieberman said. "He is knowledgeable on this issue and has in fact worked to protect the environment in his home state. I believe his voice will add to our understanding of the issue."

Richardson has an environmental group called Just Within Reach. It has been active on mountaintop mining, which is used in Richardson's home state of Kentucky.

Richardson sat in the back of the hearing room while waiting to testify Thursday. His prepared remarks did not include any reference to Voinovich.

"I am not a scientist but I do know what I've seen in flights over the coal fields," Richardson said in the remarks, which included an invitation to senators to join him on such a flight so they could see the areas themselves.

Earlier this year, the Senate Environment committee heard from Brinkley on nuclear energy. The model has been active on nuclear issues since she learned about radioactive leaks at the Shoreham and Brookhaven nuclear reactors near her home in Long Island, N.Y.

"A model talking about a nuclear power plant is going to capture a different audience then a nuclear scientist will," she told reporters at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

Roberts, who spoke about Rett Syndrome during tearful testimony last month before the House Appropriations Committee, has filmed a one-hour documentary on the illness.

"We should be glad that there are celebrities out there who care enough to use their fame to shine the spotlight for a day on an obscure disease and the children that it afflicts," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who invited Roberts.

Ross K. 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."

Other celebrities who have appeared on Capitol Hill in the past few years have included Christopher Reeve, Katie Couric, Tony Bennett and Mary Tyler Moore.

"When journalists cover celebrities, what they are doing is they are relying on a crutch," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "They are hitchhiking on the celebrity of a person to get their story noticed rather than figure out a way to make mountaintop mining, or whatever the issue is, interesting in its own right."

Baker pointed out that it's a major change from the 1950s, when Hollywood stars were summoned to Capitol Hill to testify in the anti-communist hearings.

"Now, they come as honored guests and are sought out eagerly," he said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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