After a nearly two-hour verbal battle pitting fiscal conservatism against the value of publicly funded media, the U.S. House of Representatives on March 17 approved 228-192 a bill forbidding stations to use CPB funds to acquire programming or pay NPR dues.
Opposing the bill were Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.), Mike Doyle (Pa.) and Anna Eshoo (Calif.), among others.
All voting Democrats opposed the bill; they were joined by seven Republicans. Most Republicans voted for the restrictions, while one simply voted “present.”
The House vote closely resembled the 235-189 vote a month earlier that would defund CPB two years from now and make smaller cuts immediately.
Neither bill is likely to breeze through the Senate untouched. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) noted in a statement to National Journal that the bill is “unlikely” to survive in that chamber. He gave a shout-out: “I listen to NPR every day.”
Fewer Republicans would admit the same this year. A symbol of pubcasting’s bipartisan support for a decade, the House’s Public Broadcasting Caucus, has collapsed. Given the bitterly partisan funding wars, “some members feel it’s too awkward for them” to belong, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a co-chair and founding member. “Some have been told confidentially it’s not good for them to be identified with it,” he told Current.
Perhaps most significant is the change of heart in the House since 2005, with the deep recession and the resulting Tea Party victories in congressional elections. In 2005, the House voted by a two-thirds majority to prevent a partial reduction in the CPB appropriation.
In last week’s debate on the House floor, Republicans hammered on the $1.6 trillion (and growing) budget deficit and the need to trim unnecessary programs. Democrats countered with a simple insight from the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget that the bill for “defunding NPR” saves “not one dollar, not one dime, not one penny” of the deficit, as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) put it.
The bill would stop any federal dollars going directly to an institution that fits a close description of NPR, or any paid as dues to such an institution, but both are relatively small revenue lines for the network. The bill also wouldn’t prevent stations from buying shows from NPR or other distributors such as Public Radio International — as long as federal funds stay in their wallets. Larger stations would have enough member and sponsor revenue to cover their purchases of programming, according to public radio’s Station Resource Group.
But smaller stations would be in a bind and might have to slash their purchases of national shows. Hiring even a minimal staff eats up much of a small station’s local revenues, SRG says, and present CPB rules require station grantees to use only nonfederal money to meet minimum staffing criteria. The rule is designed to prevent a station from using its federal grant to become eligible for another federal grant. Without that rule, “scores” of additional stations would be eligible for CPB grants, SRG says, and the pie would be sliced thinner for the larger number of grantees.
Some consequences of the law are clearer. If H.R. 1076 proceeds, it would end CPB’s Radio Program Fund, a major source of seed money for most major new programs as well as initiatives needing ongoing CPB support such as the national Radio Bilingüe and Native Voice One networks and the StoryCorps oral-history project.
House supporters of pubmedia noted that NPR was being punished unfairly in the wake of misleading hidden-camera videos of NPR fundraisers by right-wing activist James O’Keefe.
The G.O.P. is “relying on a discredited video that was exposed by [Fox News celebrity] Glenn Beck’s website, of all places,” Blumenauer said. “Reject this travesty.”
But Republicans continued to use the video’s dialogue to make their point. “Let’s be honest and talk about what this bill is really about,” said Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) “This is about making sure that we’re spending tax dollars the way the people who earn them would spend. We saw on the video executives at NPR saying they don’t need taxpayer dollars. That’s out there, for all of America to see.”
Misguided or unnecessary?
SRG advised stations before the vote that it believed public radio would be “significantly weaker” five years from now if H.R. 1076 became law. The law would have “a negative impact on every public broadcasting organization.”
Supportive lawmakers echoed the warning from the floor. “This misguided bill would snuff out stations from coast to coast, many in rural areas where the public radio station is the primary source of news and information,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Rep. Henry Waxman (R-Calif.) said it would “cripple NPR stations and programs.”
Nonsense, conservatives said, NPR will be fine on its own. It receives “a huge amount” of funding from individuals and corporations and “should be entirely supported by private sources,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), the bill’s sponsor.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who managed the floor debate for the House majority, cited an NPR.org list of donors in the $1 million range and beyond. “This is how wealthy the sponsorship and subscribership base is for [NPR],” she said. “It is time for us to remove the federal support system they have relied on.”
She figured, however, that forbidding stations to buy programming with federal money will lead to more local production and create many new jobs.
Little neutral ground
Ideology surfaced repeatedly during the debate. Democrats contended that conservative members got behind H.R. 1076 to win points with constituents who see NPR as a liberal mouthpiece. “This is a political stunt,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). “This is purely ideological, so members can go home and brag about what they’ve done to National Public Radio.”
Republicans flavored their distaste for NPR with a pinch of libertarian thinking. Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) said a lot of Americans “fundamentally disagree” with having their tax dollars used to support NPR. He quoted Thomas Jefferson: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.”
McGovern took a symbolic swipe at the right in response to the anti-NPR moves. He sponsored an unsuccessful amendment that would have banned spending of federal funds for advertising on the “partisan political platform of Fox News.” He noted that the Department of Defense spent $6 million on ads in 2007 and asked for an investigation as to where that money was used. “If my friends on the other side of the aisle want to strip funding from NPR because they believe — wrongly, in my view — that NPR is biased, then we should be given the same opportunity,” he said.
The pubcasting debate “is a fascinating metaphor for what is going on with the new Republican majority,” Blumenauer said. “This isn’t about cutting budgets; it’s very much ideologically driven and pretty diametrically at variance with where most of the American public is.”
The bipartisan Public Broadcasting Caucus withstood previous assaults on CPB funding (Current, June 27, 2005) but not this round. “The whole purpose of the caucus was to provide a neutral forum to talk about public broadcasting issues and give people a way to support it,” Blumenauer said. But the topic of public broadcasting “is potentially toxic right now,” he said.
The Caucus members numbered 69 in 2001 and rose to 116 during the last Congress. But on March 10, one day after NPR President Vivian Schiller resigned in the wake of the video-sting controversy, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) — a former caucus co-chair — announced he was dropping out. “. . . Recent events involving NPR undermine their claims of objectivity in their reporting,” he said in a statement. “Because NPR has crossed the line to political bias, I will no longer serve on the caucus.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is no longer a member, either, an aide told Current.
“I’m just letting it go,” Blumenauer said of the caucus. “After we get through this, I’ll work to reconstruct it, we’ll find out where we’re at.” But probably not this year, he added.
In the meantime, pubcasters can thank seven GOP members who defected to oppose the bill, including Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin. “For rural communities — such as those in Wisconsin, and my district in particular — public broadcasting plays a crucial role,” he said after the vote. “For many stations, federal funding is a very significant source of support.” He added that while he favors a cut in CPB’s allocation, “I do not believe it is appropriate to zero out federal funding for NPR in one fell swoop.”