When GOP last held control, funding for public broadcasting remained steady

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The last time Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress, legislators still helped to ensure that public media funding continued — and grew.

Public broadcasters are wondering about that time and are also looking ahead, with Republican President-elect Donald Trump preparing to take office and both houses of Congress still GOP strongholds after the election.

CurrentlyCurious_lrgLOGO“Do we know how Trump feels about CPB?” asks Benny Becker, a reporter/producer with WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky. “Could it get defunded? What are the most likely and worst-case scenarios for public radio?” Becker submitted his question as part of our Currently Curious series.

Trump has said nothing that Current could find on the issue of whether he supports funding for public broadcasting. Current also attempted to reach Trump’s campaign several times before the election and received no response.

The first possible hurdle for CPB funding could come fairly soon. In the past, conservative legislators have pushed for short-term funding plans to give an incoming president the chance to propose a new budget created around Republican priorities.

“Our federal funding may be well be challenged in coming weeks and months, but we have important allies in the new administration,” Patrick Butler, president of America’s Public Television Stations, told Current. Butler cited incoming Vice President Michael Pence, who received the APTS Champion of Public Broadcasting award in 2014 for restoring state support to public stations in Indiana when he was governor.

Republican majorities in both houses of Congress have also supported public broadcasting over the past two years, Butler noted. “We know we have more hard work ahead, but we are confident about our prospects for continued bipartisan support for federal funding.”

NPR declined to comment on the outlook for public radio funding. At a meeting of the NPR Board Wednesday, newly re-elected Chair Roger LaMay, g.m. of WXPN in Philadelphia, alluded to a potentially more challenging funding atmosphere ahead. The threat “should heighten our resolve to grow business,” he said, and NPR’s board should “show strategic thoughtfulness and leadership.” The board was to hear in executive session later in the day from Mike Riksen, the network’s v.p. for policy and representation.

[UPDATE: In an email sent Wednesday to leaders of NPR stations and obtained by Current, Riksen said it was “too early, in fact, to make any specific predictions or evaluations.” He thanked colleagues for “the many comments and phone calls in recent days and for sharing your questions about the future of the annual federal investment in public broadcasting.”

Riksen pointed out that Republicans in Congress have supported funding for public broadcasting over the past two fiscal years. “Congressional committee leaders who have been responsible for this will be returning to serve in the next Congress, and likely returning to the same leadership roles they have held previously,” he said.

The memo also said that NPR is “already at work to ensure a strong station connection” with the “likely incoming new Chair of the House Appropriations Committee,” whom media outlets have reported to be Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.). Frelinghuysen “has a solid working understanding of public broadcasting and our essential role in communities all across America,” Riksen said.

Frelinghuysen, now chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, has twice voted to preserve CPB funding in the face of threatened cuts. But in 2011, he and nearly all of his fellow House Republicans supported a bill barring public radio stations from using CPB money to buy NPR programming or pay network dues. The vote came after the dismissal of NPR commentator Juan Williams and the release of a video by conservative sting artist James O’Keefe featuring NPR executives.]

Perhaps looking at what happened the last time the GOP held the White House and Congress could provide clues. Tucker Ives, a digital producer at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, also submitted a Currently Curious question: “How was government funding of public media affected the last time Republicans controlled the White House and Congress?”

The last time both houses of Congress and the White House were in Republican hands was from 2003 through mid-January 2007 under President George W. Bush.

The CPB appropriation, which is the foundation of federal support, has been forward-funded by two years since 1976, intended to shield public broadcasting from political pressure over content. That means that money requested in, say, a president’s proposed budget for the 2003 fiscal year ends up providing public broadcasting’s support in FY05.

In 2003, Bush proposed $365 million for CPB’s FY05 appropriation, and Congress provided $362.8 million. But from 2004 through 2006, he zeroed out the CPB appropriation in his proposed budgets. Congress, however, countered Bush’s proposals and continued support, increasing CPB’s outlay by 5 percent during that time.

That wasn’t without a fight. In 2005 the GOP-led House Appropriations Committee proposed a 25 percent cut to the $400 million CPB outlay. A weeklong public outcry erupted, and the House reversed the recommended cut in funding. All but six of the House’s 202 Democrats voted against the cut; 87 of 140 Republicans joined them. Republicans now hold 20 more seats in the House.

Vermont PTV says civil unions are part of the culture here, so we’ll show the episode. South Carolina ETV meanwhile says let parents decide how to tell kids about gay people, so we won’t air it. Pictured: Buster with two families and their four gay moms. (Image © WGBH and Cookie Jar Entertainment Inc.)

Buster with two families and their four gay moms. (Image: WGBH/Cookie Jar Entertainment Inc.)

Also in 2005, a Postcards from Buster episode about two families with lesbian parents ignited a funding controversy. New U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings sent a letter to PBS citing the agency’s “strong and very serious concerns” about the episode and insisting that PBS refund Ready to Learn money used to make the program if the network distributed it. PBS dropped distribution of the show.

During the GOP years, money also flowed to public broadcasting for interconnection, the system’s distribution architecture.

The Public Telecommunications Facility Program, which began to provide money for equipment in 2000, had a harder time under Republican control. The House tried to kill it off in its proposed 2003 budget; PTFP survived with $55 million provided by the Senate, but by 2005 that had dropped 64 percent. PTFP faced similar challenges in subsequent years and finally shut down in 2011.

Stations also got cash to pay for the switch from analog to digital broadcasting during the years that Republicans ran Washington. “We positioned the digital TV conversion as an opportunity for public broadcasting to deploy new services,” said John Lawson, then president of what is now APTS. Support decreased 38 percent between 2006 and 2009 as the switchover neared and work began to be completed.

Ready to Learn, a competitive grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Education, also provided funding to public television during GOP-controlled years. “The Bush Administration from day one was very supportive of Ready to Learn and helped us to increase those funds,” Lawson said.

But that wasn’t without its own battles on the Hill, including surviving being zeroed out by the House Appropriations Committee in 2005.

Submit your own question to Currently Curious in the form below. It could be investigated in a future story.

  • TomKaz

    For the life of me I can’t understand why members of a political party (who claim to be fiscally conservative) would vote to use taxpayer’s money to fund an organization that funds others who are biased in favor of Democratic/liberal/progressive policies.

    • Dru Sefton, Current

      Hi Tom: The public broadcasting system is much more than just radio and television programming. Station initiatives provide a high return on federal investment in education outreach, for instance. Here’s background: http://actioninc.apts.org/sites/default/wp-content/uploads/legislative/advocacy/Public_investment_PM.pdf

      • TomKaz

        Dru, in the PDF you link to I don’t see any empirical evidence (only anecdotes) that these stations provide a high return on federal investment, anymore that spending on Head Start has had any sustained benefit to those who participated. But that’s beside the point. Why should the Federal Government (taxpayers) be subsidizing any content producers or broadcasters? If the product is so good (and SOME of it is), why can’t these entities sustain themselves on viewer/listener donations, private grants, and God forbid, sponsors/advertisers?

        The sad fact is the news product being produced/procured by organizations such as NPR, PBS, and their member stations has a left-wing bias. Again, why would people of a conservative/libertarian persuasion support taxpayer funding for organizations that support/produce/broadcast messages that are hostile to their beliefs, and neglect to cover issues they’re concerned about?

        • Brad Deltan

          Why should progressives and liberals support taxpayer funding of foreign wars?

          Taxes are what you pay so your neighbor doesn’t kill and eat you. It’s called the price of society.

          • TomKaz

            Ever hear of enumerated powers? Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution? I don’t see the clause about funding the press.

            And I don’t think CPB funding is going to stop anyone from killing and eating anybody.

          • Adam Ragusea

            I suppose CPB funding, along with a lot of what the federal gov does, would fall under the “general welfare” clause.

            I’ve often asked the same question that you ask, Tom — Why do Republicans keep supporting public broadcasting? Even where/when they control all branches, they keep funding it. All I can figure is that, at the end of the day, it’s popular and most of them like it. We’ll see how long that keeps up.

          • TomKaz

            The Hamiltonians certainly believe the general welfare clause puts no limitations whatsoever on Congress’s power to spend on virtually anything they want. But if that’s the case, the founders should have said as much in Article I, Section 8, and saved themselves a lot of wasted ink.

            Why do Republicans keep supporting public broadcasting? Good question. Maybe they’re afraid of being accused of killing Big Bird? Or maybe most Republicans aren’t fiscal conservatives, and like Democrats, see the best way to get elected is to give their constituents stuff they didn’t pay for. Kind of explains why we’re $20 trillion in debt.

          • Dru Sefton, Current

            Republicans support public media because their constituents get a lot out of the services stations provide. Education. Job training. Stations bring community nonprofits together for collaborative projects like in California — a reporting project on hunger grew into a huge community garden tended by local students who eat the produce in school: http://www.sacbee.com/entertainment/living/home-garden/article96684382.html

            There’s a lot going on at local stations that benefit communities in many ways, and that’s what legislators hear from their constituents. There is indeed ROI data, I’m tracking that down for you. It’s pretty impressive.

          • Dru Sefton, Current

            Ah! Here, found this:

            Return on Investment: For every federal dollar invested in public broadcasting, local stations raise $6 on their own, creating important economic activity as well as educational and cultural service. The United States already has one of the lowest per capita levels of federal funding for public media — less than $1.50 per person — in the developed world. In contrast, it cost $700 billion to bail out the banks, and the per capita cost of that to taxpayers was roughly $2,250. Eliminating the $445 million investment in CPB would reduce the $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit by less than 3 hundredths of one percent — but it would have a devastating impact on local communities nationwide.

          • Dru Sefton, Current
          • Dru Sefton, Current

            Hope all that provides context for you! Thanks for your comments.

          • MarkJeffries

            It’s not going to change anything, Dru. Kaz and his buddies want nothing more than the non-com band under 92 on FM ended and the existing non-com licenses either given to Bible-thumpers or turned commercial and nothing you say will change their minds.

          • Paul Cook

            MarkJeffries and his minions want nothing more than NPR to sound like Pacifica and the defunct Air America. They want to tax all Americans to spread leftist propaganda and the liberal DNC. Like Pravda they believe that government funded news is the best. They don’t believe that NPR has a bias ’cause it supports their side of the ideological spectrum. Nothing will change their minds.

            (See Mark how easy it is to misstate and mischaracterize someone’s opinion.)

          • TomKaz

            Mark, you can have all the public radio you want. Just don’t force taxpayers to pay for it. I don’t know why that is so hard to understand.

          • Duncan Lively

            Tell ya’ what TomKaz and Paul Cook — you can have public broadcasting’s scalp when the tax code is changed so that the sponsors for Rush, Sean, Savage, et al no longer get taxpayer subsidy via the deduction for advertising expenses. Until then, you’ll just have to hope that Trump and the GOP Congress are as fond of Ayn Rand as you are (you know — the same Ayn Rand who railed against any sort of welfare but who benefited from Social Security and Medicare in her later years.)

          • TomKaz

            Good!

          • TomKaz

            That’s a strange interpretation of Return on Investment. Wouldn’t the ROI be astronomically higher if we reduced CPB funding to $1 a year?

            I’m glad the United States spends a lot less in public media than other countries. We should reduce it even further – the Federal government shouldn’t fund any media organization, particularly those that delve into news and social/political commentary. There’s an inherent conflict of interest when “the press” is funded by the government and the actors it covers.

            Btw, you should recall how members of each party voted for the bank bailout:
            http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2008/roll681.xml

          • TomKaz

            The majority of House Republicans vote against CPB funding, and the vast majority oppose the use of taxpayer funding for biased news organizations like NPR.

          • Are you referring to specific House votes? As this article points out, there’s been at least one instance in which the majority of House Republicans supported CPB funding.

  • altfactor@hotmail.com

    Regardless, this will likely mean even more pledge weeks and pledge specials on PBS and more on-air fundraising on NPR.