5 things you need to know about threats to CPB funding

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Adam Ragusea

Big Bird faces the threat of a proverbial sword.

This article is adapted from episode 91 of Current’s podcast, The Pub.

If you’re sweating bullets because President Donald Trump’s FY 2018 budget proposal calls for eliminating all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, keep reading. In five points, here’s everything you need to know about the likelihood that CPB will be defunded and what would happen if it were.

1. Republicans alone might not be able to defund CPB.

Since Republicans hold only 52 seats in the Senate, any legislation defunding CPB would either need at least eight Democratic/independent votes to reach a filibuster-proof supermajority — an unlikely scenario, considering near-universal support for public broadcasting among Democrats — or the cut would have to be passed using the budget reconciliation process, which cannot be filibustered and therefore only requires 51 votes.

The problem with the reconciliation route, however, is that it has never been used to cut discretionary spending, which is the broad category under which CPB funding lies. The reconciliation process, which was created by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, has instead been used to adjust taxes and entitlement spending.

In theory, Republicans could attempt to cut discretionary spending via reconciliation. But Sarah Binder, professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert in congressional procedure, said doing so would be “very nuclear,” and she’s skeptical it would be tried.

2. There is significant Republican support for public broadcasting.

“The odds are that CPB funding will survive. Plenty of bicameral support,” said a lobbyist for public media entities who used to be a staffer for Republican members of Congress and who requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly.

From 2003–2007, Republicans held the House, Senate and the White House and did not defund CPB. Asked what stopped them back then, the lobbyist replied, “The same thing that will stop them now. They don’t want to defund public broadcasting.”

Indeed, public broadcasting has Republican allies in many key positions in Washington.

Pence, left, during his term as Indiana’s governor, after receiving a Champion of Public Broadcasting Award from APTS President Pat Butler in 2014. (Photo: APTS)

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Vice President Mike Pence have all in recent years been awarded the Champion of Public Broadcasting Award from America’s Public Television Stations because of their respective roles in steering funding to CPB and to other public broadcasting appropriations, such as technological upgrades.

Cochran chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over all discretionary spending, while Blunt chairs the appropriations subcommittee with specific jurisdiction over public broadcasting, and Cole chairs the corresponding subcommittee in the House.

Cole

“There is a strong constituency for public broadcasting in both the House and Senate,” Cole told Current in January.

Pence, as governor of Indiana, restored state-level funding to public broadcasting that had been cut by his predecessor, Mitch Daniels.

As vice president and president of the Senate, Pence could play a key role in any attempt to cut CPB via reconciliation in the Senate, by either casting a tie-breaking vote or by choosing whether to follow the advice of the Senate’s parliamentarian. And Binder suspects the parliamentarian would likely recommend that reconciliation should not be used to cut discretionary spending under current rules.

3. Even if cut this year, CPB money might not run out all at once.

Since the Ford administration, Congress has appropriated CPB’s budget two years in advance, in part to minimize the threat of political interference.

Congress could therefore vote this year to leave all of CPB’s already-passed appropriations untouched and simply stop approving new ones. In theory, voters could elect a new Congress in the 2018 midterms that would restore funding in 2019 before any of the money ran out.

However, since the advance appropriations have not yet actually been paid out, Congress could also vote to rescind those as well.

That would be a “totally legal thing to do,” said Tom Thomas, co-CEO of the Station Resource Group. “In that — the most stark scenario — the funding from the federal government for public media would come to an end on September 30 of this calendar year.”

4. The amount of money public media stands to lose isn’t huge, but it’s bigger than it looks.

Federal funding accounts for about one-sixth of the money in the overall public media economy, Thomas said — approximately $500 million (including CPB and non-CPB appropriations) relative to the approximately $3 billion in the public media system as a whole.

However, those dollars are, in essence, more valuable than dollars obtained by other means, such as membership, major gifts and underwriting. For each dollar raised by those methods, Thomas said, public media organizations have to spend 20 to 30 cents on costs like fundraising and sales staff. Extrapolating from those numbers, public media would have to raise up to $650 million annually to replace $500 million in federal funds.

There would also be various ripple effects that are hard to estimate in dollar figures.

Some local stations — particularly those that serve small or poor markets and are therefore much more dependent on CPB grants — would likely fold if CPB were defunded. The demise of those stations would mean fewer stations pooling together to purchase national programming, pay for distribution infrastructure and music licensing, and so forth. Surviving stations would have to pay more to pick up the slack, and the overall contraction of the system would result in less efficient economies of scale.

5. Even without federal funding, public broadcasting would still be public.

Many public broadcasters receive significant state and local taxpayer support, and that money would not be directly affected by the loss of federal funding.

Husock

In addition, “public media has an ongoing and non-ending subsidy from [the federal] government, and that was the original award of the licenses,” said Howard Husock, a Republican CPB board member who recently argued in The Washington Post that public media might no longer deserve ongoing federal appropriations.

That initial federal giveaway continues to create value for public broadcasters by allowing them access to the public’s airwaves, Husock said. One example of that value is the enormous sums currently being won by some station licensees in the FCC’s spectrum auction, such as the $157 million that the San Bernardino Community College District will receive for KVCR-TV’s UHF channel.

Husock has previously argued that stations should invest those one-time windfalls into local news programming in order to carve out a more relevant ongoing role for themselves as technology erodes their core business of locally distributing national content.

Such investments could help address one of Thomas’ biggest concerns about the potential loss of federal funding — that the particularly devastating budgetary hits against smaller, generally rural stations would deprive the broader system of stories and perspectives from those areas.

“Our largest stations in our largest markets are stronger and their service is better because of the reach and health of the whole system that we have,” Thomas said. “If that whole system is diminished, either in the number of participants or the quality of their work, all of the stations will be diminished in what they are able to bring to their communities.”

Adam Ragusea hosts Current’s podcast The Pub and is a journalist in residence and visiting assistant professor at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.

CorrectionAn earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that CPB has been forward-funded since its creation. Forward funding began during the Ford administration.

  • Brad Deltan

    I see Husock continues to be a disingenuous jackass.

    It’s not a “subsidy” when the government takes the position that it alone controls access to the airwaves, and licenses them on a temporary, renewable basis to serve the public interest.

    It’d be a “subsidy” if private individuals could legally own that chunk of spectrum to broadcast on. Then if the government specifically reserved that station for the exclusive use of a CPB member? Yes, that’d be a subsidy.

    But it’s just not like that. Broadcast licenses, legally, have zero value to anyone but the Federal Government. That’s why banks won’t (in general) accept the broadcast license as collateral on financing to buy the broadcast license; because at any time the FCC can say “nope, Mr. Bank, you can’t have that license” and take it away without any compensation.

    (note to the trolls already typing a reply: I know full well in the “real world” radio licenses routinely sell for millions of dollars. But we’re not talking about the real world, we’re talking about government rules and legal technicalities. And in that realm, broadcast licenses are legally of no value to anyone but the gov’t because they must (except for non-comms) be auctioned off to benefit the US Treasury. As far as the FCC is concerned, the money exchanged between two entities in a “sale” of a station is utterly meaningless to whether or not the FCC will approve the transfer of the license.)