Among the 58 possible federal budget savings recommended by the vice chairs of the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform are the entire appropriations to CPB, the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program and the Agriculture Department’s facilities grants to rural public stations.
That could put public broadcasting in a congressional bull’s-eye, since a number of bigger items on the list would be too politically devastating to okay. Who on either side of the aisle would vote to boost the retirement age to 69, wipe out income-tax deductions for health benefits and mortgage interest or raise the payroll tax?
“The current CPB funding level is the highest it has ever been,” the draft says, with no comment on the merits, and notes that erasing the appropriation would save nearly $500 million in 2015 alone.
The authors and vice chairs of the panel are former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. The president directed them to suggest ways to balance the budget by 2015.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately termed the draft recommendations “simply unacceptable.” And, indeed, Simpson and Bowles have signaled that the draft is just a starting point — as suggested by the list’s title, “Illustrative savings.” If approved, cuts would begin in 2012.
A 50-page explanation of proposals insists that “everything must be on the table” for cuts or elimination. If enacted as is, the recommendations could trim $4 trillion from the deficit, which today stands at nearly $14 trillion, with interest costs of $414 billion a year. Obama wants the commission report, due Dec. 1, to advise how to erase that debt minus interest.
The commission’s final report, due Dec. 1, requires the approval of at least 14 of the commission’s 18 members. Many Hill watchers find it unlikely that this version will pass muster. Twelve of the panelists are members of Congress, six from each party. Rounding it out are two c.e.o.’s, a union president and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Three House members of the congressional public broadcasting caucus are on the commission: Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and John Sprat (D-S.C.)
CPB “strongly disagrees” with the co-chairs’ report, the corporation said in a statement after the draft’s release. It notes the pubcasting proposals are made “without justification.” With a yearly federal investment of $1.35 per American, public broadcasting “returns six times that amount in programming and services, creating 17,000 jobs in the American economy,” it said.
NPR said in its statement that elimination of funding “would have a profound and detrimental impact on all Americans.” It noted: “In a time of media decline, especially in local, international and investigative reporting, public radio’s role in fostering an informed society has never been as critical as it is today. The public radio audience is one of the few in media that has consistently grown — doubling in the last decade alone.”
The Association for Public Television stations said that it is “deeply troubled by” and “ardently opposes” the recommendation. The cutbacks would particularly affect small rural stations, “forcing them to go dark, hurting their communities and eradicating vital services,” it said.
Co-chair Erskin Bowles intersected with public broadcasting in July  in his separate role of president of the University of North Carolina. UNC's public TV network turned over reporting documents subpoenaed by a state legislative committee.