Thicket of uncertainty for federal aid

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Public broadcasters face multiple and serious uncertainties on Capitol Hill over the next few months.

A spending bill approved by the House subcommittee with oversight of CPB’s appropriation proposes to phase out CPB funding over the next three years; it includes language restricting public radio stations from spending their CPB aid to support NPR in any way. Another election-season threat comes from GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who has repeatedly cited CPB as one of five agencies he’d extinguish.

Sequestration, a byproduct of Congress’s inability to reach consensus on debt-reduction measures last summer, could also hit pubcasting, slicing 8 percent or more from the $445 million in federal funding that pubcasters anticipate for 2013. If sequestration occurs, the government could opt to hold back part of CPB’s 2013 appropriation — a move that would trigger a reduction in stations’ Community Service Grants.

“The challenge this year is that there are so many moving pieces,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told Current. Blumenauer, pubcasting’s lead champion on Capitol Hill, is quietly trying to revive the Public Broadcasting Caucus, which disbanded months after NPR’s dismissal of Fox News pundit Juan Williams put pubcasting’s federal aid in the crosshairs of the GOP.

In the Senate, a bill approved by the Appropriations Committee in June provides full $445 million in CPB funding in 2015, following the tradition of two-year advance appropriations for pubcasting. But veteran Hill observers know that Senate support may not be enough to protect them from damaging cuts when lawmakers hash out a deal on next year’s budget, expected by the end of March.

As former Association of Public Television Stations President John Lawson pointed out, Congress eliminated the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program and most of CPB’s digital appropriation during down-to-the-wire budget negotiations in April 2011. Those cuts cost the system $20 million in matching funds for broadcast equipment upgrades, and $30 million for digital projects.

Given that precedent and political imperatives to restrain federal spending, there’s an orange alert on pubcasting’s appropriation for 2013 and beyond. “We’ve already been reduced in this Congress by 13 percent over the last two years,” Blumenauer said. “If everybody had been whacked the way public broadcasting has been, the budget would be a half-trillion dollars smaller.”

NPR’s chief Hill rep, Mike Riksen, counsels pubcasters to stay focused on the advocacy work that resonates with policymakers. “The uncertainty is out of our control,” he said. “The only thing we can do is continue to meet with members of Congress at stations to demonstrate to them how federal funds enable local services supported by local voices.”

A delay on Labor HHS

The bill passed by the Labor HHS appropriations subcommittee included provisions aimed at Planned Parenthood and other GOP political targets. It was approved 8-6 on July 18. All but one lawmaker voted along party lines: Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake joined Democrats in opposition — but only because he wanted even deeper total cuts.

Montana Republican Denny Rehberg drafted the bill, with its provision targeting CPB. It includes rescissions to pubcasting’s forward-funded appropriations for fiscal 2013 and 2014: The $445 million allocated for next year would be cut by 25 percent, or $111.3 million; in 2014 the cuts go deeper, to 50 percent, or $222.5 million. The bill eliminates CPB funding in 2015.

In addition, the bill prohibits stations from spending CPB grants “to pay dues to, acquire programs from, or otherwise support National Public Radio.” The language is similar to provisions in a bill that attempted to defund NPR last year. It passed the House 228-192 but was never taken up in the Senate. (Current, March 21, 2011)

Lawmakers have already left town for their August recess, so the full House Appropriations committee won’t act on the Labor HHS bill until September or later, according to APTS President Patrick Butler. Votes on Labor HHS spending are sometimes delayed during general election years, he said. Word on the Hill is that lawmakers will use a continuing resolution to fund the government through March, he said.

Hill watchers expect lawmakers to combine all spending measures in an omnibus bill or a continuing resolution that will fund the government for the remainder of the year.

However, the Labor HHS subcommittee members “are putting a checker on a square, marking out a position,” said Tom Thomas, co-chief of pubradio’s Station Resource Group. Their bill also introduces “the wrinkle of a multiyear phase-out of CPB funding” instead of the immediate cut proposed last year, Thomas said. “It’s a marker in the process, from where I see it.”

Beyond dealing with the election-year politicking that’s infused the work of Congress, pubcasting advocates have to consider the political ramifications of the presidential election. APTS has had “extensive conversations” with senior public policy advisors working on the Romney campaign, Butler said, “about what we do, how we do it and why we need federal funding.”

The talks are very important because Romney “didn’t have a very deep relationship with public broadcasting” during his tenure as Massachusetts governor, Butler said. Public policy discussions about taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting didn’t come up because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t provide funding to its public stations.

By repeatedly speaking publicly about pubcasting paying its own way, Romney has already positioned himself as an advocate for ending federal aid. Most recently, he told Time magazine in May that PBS is “going to have to raise more money from charitable contributions or from advertising.”

Butler believes that APTS’s work with the Romney campaign is helping. “I do think we are making some progress with his team,” he said. “These have been very substantive and lengthy conversations with senior staff people, and we are very grateful. They don’t have to spend time with me on these issues. But I think it’s emblematic of their interest in trying to get this right.”

President Barack Obama continues to support federal appropriations for CPB. His fiscal 2013 budget recommends a $445 million advance appropriation for fiscal 2015. But it remains unclear how much political leverage the White House would assert on behalf of public broadcasting when the time comes to work out a budget deal.

A trigger cocked for Jan. 2

Sequestration throws another complication into financial planning for pubcasters that rely on federal aid.

Approved as part of the Budget Control Act enacted last August, it essentially triggers spending reductions by some $1.2 trillion over 10 years unless Congress approves budget cuts of a similar amount.

Sequestration would begin on Jan. 2, 2013, with an across-the-board cut of approximately $110 billion in both mandatory and discretionary spending for fiscal 2013. Set spending caps for future years will limit spending further out.

Sequestration “isn’t a certainty,” Riksen said, “but we have to keep in mind that as of today, it is the law. So unless that is changed — unless they alter the law that currently is in place — we all have to think about how to deal with it.”

While an across-the-board cut sounds straightforward, it’s more complicated for CPB. Because Congress allocates money to CPB two years in advance of the normal appropriations cycle, it receives its entire federal outlay on Oct. 1.

It’s not clear how the Office of Management and Budget will handle CPB’s forthcoming 2013 appropriation as the sequestration looms, according to Thomas. “The current presumption — and I must emphasize that this is a presumption — is that OMB will hold back a portion of CPB’s appropriation to enable it to comply with the Budget Control Act.” He’s advising stations to prepare for reductions of around 8 percent, or up to 10 percent, in their CPB Community Service Grants.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that all CSGs will change, Thomas said. “Some stations may have had enough NFFS [nonfederal financial support] growth that even if the CSG fund goes down, theirs goes up.”

“Everyone that has some expectation of CPB dollars for fiscal 2013 needs to be very cautious in planning, and have contingencies,” Thomas said.

And Butler noted that political leaders in both parties will be “trying mightily to avoid sequestration.” As yet, there’s no viable plan for deep budget cuts that would prevent it, he said.

Rebuilding bipartisanship

Amidst all the uncertainty over pubcasting’s federal aid, there’s one factor that would put the field on more solid footing: bipartisan political support — and champions working across the aisle — on Capitol Hill.

A July 20 report by The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress, played up NPR’s public disclosure of $10,000 paid to GOP lobbying firm Navigators Global, linking it to the House Labor HHS appropriations vote. But it’s not unusual for NPR to retain outside lobbyists, according to Riksen. He described the expenditure as a “routine thing.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Blumenauer is trying to revive another consensus-builder for pubcasting’s federal aid.

The Public Broadcasting Caucus, created in 2000, had withstood the 2005 assault on CPB funding, but it collapsed under the partisan attacks prompted by NPR’s firing of Juan Williams in October 2010.

Blumenauer, founder of the caucus, has been trying to rebuild the group, which previously had 113 members. He recently sponsored an informal dinner for both Republican and Democratic House members.

Because any progress in bringing bipartisanship to debates about public broadcasting is so tenuous, Blumenauer declined to provide details on how many or which members attended, or even where the meal took place.

“I continue to reach out,” he said. “There are still some members who are supportive and others who would like to be but feel, for whatever reason, a little constrained. I am personally committed to getting back to the point where we have dozens of Republicans engaged and active.”

Butler holds out hope that political leaders will be more comfortable talking publicly about public broadcasting after the November elections. “I do sense we are gaining some steam here,” he said. “There are a lot of people willing to engage in ways that maybe they weren’t before. We’re having serious conversations.”

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A House bill barring stations from using CPB funds to pay for programs or NPR dues, approved in a March 2011 vote that split along partisan lines, never made it to the Senate.

Each of public broadcasting’s major national organizations issued statements opposing the Labor HHS appropriations bill prior to the subcommittee’s July 2012 mark-up. NPR President Gary Knell, whose organization was targeted in the bill, said provisions aimed at NPR overlooked “the big role that our programs play in helping stations to raise private sector funds from listeners and businesses in their communities.” 


Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who is trying to rebuild the bipartisan Public Broadcasting Caucus, spoke against the Labor HHS subcommittee bill in a July 19 statement delivered on the House floor. In the nearly five-minute speech, he described conservatives who oppose CPB federal aid as “a tiny fraction of the American public that is even a minority” within the Republican party.  “Polls show that two-thirds of Republicans surveyed would either keep federal funding for public broadcasting as it is, or increase it. But what resonates with Republican primary voters is not what America wants, needs or believes.”