House leader demands a plan; Senate backs higher numbers

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Having emerged from the first 100 days of the 104th Congress with most of its advance funding intact, public broadcasting is entering the most crucial stage in renegotiating its relationship with the lawmakers.

Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, moved up the schedule for that stage in an April 5 meeting with top pubcasters, asking them to submit by the end of the month their plans for replacing the annual CPB appropriations that congressional Republicans want to eliminate.

The Senate, meanwhile, declined to accept House leadership, voting April 6 to continue CPB funding at this year’s $285.6 million level for the next two years.

CPB funding was one of the major sticking points that delayed final action on the Senate bill, as conservative Republicans sought bigger cuts and Democrats pushed for smaller ones. The legislation goes next to a House-Senate conference committee, which will have to hammer out substantial differences in the two chambers’ proposed cuts for CPB and other programs. (The conference will be scheduled after the House returns from recess May 1; the Senate returns a week earlier.)

While substantial CPB funding for fiscal years 1996 and 1997 seems likely, the big question is now whether the field will receive any federal aid at all in 1998 and beyond. Many pubcasters lobbying in Washington recently hope only to add a few years to the “glide path” toward zero funding.

Goal hasn’t changed

Although legislators did not take the hatchet approach to zeroing out CPB funding during the rescissions process, majority leaders still aim to eliminate public broadcasting’s annual federal support.

Both Fields and Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.)–the subcommittee chairmen in charge of CPB’s authorization and appropriations–are looking for ways to wean public broadcasting from its annual appropriation “without turning it into a commercial medium,” as a Porter spokesman put it.

During a recent televised Freedom Forum broadcast about public broadcasting, Porter himself asserted that “general agreement” exists in Congress on zero funding for the field. He predicted that the system will continue to operate “without being commercialized, and will be the better for it.”

When Porter recently told public broadcasting’s leaders that his subcommittee would begin work on CPB’s 1998 appropriation next month, he described several factors required for the process to succeed, according to David Brugger, president of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS).

Porter’s ability to extend the CPB glide path beyond two years is somewhat limited, however. Because public broadcasting’s authorization expires in 1997, any funds that his appropriations subcommittee allocates for CPB would be extremely vulnerable to amendments on the House floor, according to John Lawson, president of Convergence Services, a lobbying firm.

Porter “does not want to be in the awkward position of having cashed in his chips to get a number, and then wind up in August with no authorization to support it,” explained Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group.

“Whether or not we were going to have any appropriation at all really depends on whether there’s going to be an authorization, and whether there’s an authorization depends on our getting a plan to Jack Fields that he could use,” Brugger recalled. Whether an authorization moves forward depends on a “meeting of the minds of the leadership … over whether they wanted an authorization.”

That Fields pushed up the deadline for the field to develop a privatization plan could be interpreted as a good sign that he intends to get the reauthorization moving this summer, but his reasons for doing so remain unclear.

“For whatever reason, he felt people in the public broadcasting community needed a greater sense of urgency,” said Thomas.

According to Brugger, Fields indicated that his committee would begin drafting legislation over the recess. “We decided, given the timeline, that we needed to have [a plan] earlier.”

Fields also helped the field’s leaders narrow their long list of alternative funding options by telling them “any proposals that include taxes are nonstarters,” Brugger recalled. That stipulation applies to taxes on electronic equipment, but not proceeds from spectrum auctions that would be allocated to a trust fund, as Brugger interprets it. “I don’t think we’re prevented from asking for things we think are viable alternatives, whether that’s ancillary income or changes in other taxes that would help us earn our own money.”

Another legislative process that may affect the CPB funding debate is the budget reconciliation, which will be at the top of the agenda when Congress reconvenes. Through this process, legislators will chart a multiyear spending plan to balance the federal budget.

Although the budget committees that develop the spending goals do not set specific levels for domestic discretionary programs, CPB funding already has become an early target. The House Budget Committee last month released a report that outlined how to save $100 billion on discretionary spending over five years: the committee suggested freezing CPB funding at $285.6 million for the next two years, and eliminating it in 1998.

In meetings early this month with members of Congress, Burnie Clark, president of KCTS, Seattle, heard from several Washington legislators that “what we’re going to see when Congress comes back from the April recess will be a real blood bath … to balance the budget in seven years.” Cuts will be “more dramatic” and will affect all programs, including entitlements.

During a meeting with Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a member of the communications subcommittee in charge of CPB’s authorization, Clark heard a less worrisome message. The senator informed Clark that the Senate would take a more “deliberative” approach to considering public broadcasting’s future, and that the authorization and appropriations processes would move forward throughout the summer, with a final resolution in October.

Compromise defeats Dole, Harkin

The Senate’s slower pace in considering legislation was much in evidence early this month, when debate over it rescission bill hit a log jam that held for almost a week.

CPB funding was in play throughout the process: with an amendment by Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), which would have brought its 1996 and ’97 appropriations down to the House-approved levels; with another by Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), which would have provided a small inflationary increase for the field over those two years; and a failed bipartisan compromise, which would have cut $21.6 million from this year’s $285 million level, mostly from 1996.

In an April 6 caucus meeting at which Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) presented the initial compromise, Senate Democrats rejected the deal.

That left Senate Republicans with little choice but to continue bargaining. With the congressional recess drawing near, Dole lacked the votes to invoke cloture, which would have limited debate on the measure. If the rescissions package foundered, it would have denied the Republicans a major end-of-session achievement.

“Are we now going to just let this die off, go off in the night with no results?” asked Majority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.). “Just collapse in a puddle of nothingness here in the Senate?”

On the eve of announcing his presidential candidacy, Dole was not about to let that happen. He renegotiated a deal with Daschle to restore about $837 million to education reform, Head Start and child nutrition programs and still achieved $16 billion in cuts.

Dole dropped the deeper CPB recissions from the package, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), ranking minority member of the Labor-HHS and Education Appropriations subcommittee, was one of a handful of senators allowed to offer their amendments.

Harkin’s proposal, co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Ernest Hollings (S.C.) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.), proposed to add $26 million to CPB funding levels approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee ($285.6 million for 1996 and 1997), providing a modest increase for public broadcasters. The amendment also would have restored funding to a senior citizens employment program, and paid for both add-ons by cutting Radio Free Europe’s budget.

“Opponents of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are working to phase out public broadcasting at home and are willing to sustain that same service in Europe,” Harkin said on the floor. “Make no mistake about it, this is public broadcasting in Eastern Europe: it is paid for by U.S. taxpayers.”

“You can be assured that this is not the final definitive debate on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” said Sen. Dale Bumpers (D- Ark.). There is an assault in the U.S. Congress on public broadcasting. With Newt Gingrich leading the charge, the Republicans in Congress have decided to take dead aim at Big Bird, rather than deal with the problems that really cause harm to our society.”

Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) who had prepared but never offered an amendment to reduce CPB’s funding to the House’s rescission level, spoke in opposition to the Harkin measure. Outlining alternative funding proposals for public broadcasting, Pressler pointed to the “great bureaucracy that has grown inside the Beltway” and “excessively high salaries” paid by stations.

The states, Pressler asserted, “are not getting their fair share. My little state of South Dakota, which is vast in geography but small in population, gets $1.7 million, but they have to send $1 million back immediately for programming, which they might be able to buy elsewhere at a better rate.”

Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) also spoke in opposition to the amendment. Declaring himself an “unabashed supporter of public television,” Biden objected to the amendment because of its cuts to RFE. “They are pitting two very important functions of government against one another. But we should not undermine Radio Free Europe.”

As chairman of the Labor-HHS subcommittee, Specter urged colleagues to stick with the CPB funding levels approved by his subcommittee. “I would like to see more funding for public broadcasting. But in setting this mark we feel there has been a realistic and appropriate balancing of priorities,” said Specter.

In the end, the Senate narrowly rejected the amendment, 46-53.

Although the total rescissions approved by both chambers are similar in size, the structure of cuts within the competing bills is quite different–on CPB and many other programs. The potential for a volatile conference committee is quite high.

Senate conferees, who were appointed prior to the recess, include Republicans Mark Hatfield (Ore.), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Thad Cochran (Miss.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Phil Gramm (Texas), Christopher Bond (Mo.), Slade Gorton (Wash.), Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Connie Mack (Fla.). Democratic conferees will be Ernest Hollings (S.C.), J. Bennett Johnston (La.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Dale Bumpers (Ark.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Harry Reid (Nev.), Bob Kerrey (Neb.), Herbert Kohl (Wis.) and Patty Murray (Wash.). The House will not appoint its conference committee until it reconvenes.

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