A week of rallies, petitions, public service announcements and entreaties to Congress persuaded the House of Representatives last week to restore the $400 million appropriation for next year that Congress advance-funded two years ago.
By a 2-to-1 margin, the House reversed a 25 percent cut in the outlay that the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee recommended the previous week.
David Obey (D-Wis.), Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Muppet-wielding pubcasting advocate Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) sponsored the amendment, which passed with votes from 87 Republicans, 196 Democrats and an independent. Total vote: 284-140. [Votes by party, roll call by name.]
The victory was a spoonful of sugar that made it easier for some pubcasters to swallow CPB’s hiring of Patricia Harrison despite strong objections by many. Spurred by news reports and stations’ on-air announcements, pubcasting fans signed petitions and inundated members of Congress with phone calls with a fervor that reminded some lawmakers of Newt Gingrich’s 1995 assault on pubcasting.
“We have a new remake of an old show,” Lowey told the House last week. “Ten years ago when the right-wing launched an assault on public television, Americans rallied and Republicans retreated.”
Unlike the 1995 attack, however, pubcasters had little warning their opponents would cut so deep, APTS President John Lawson said.
While lobbyists knew the budget environment was tight, few expected the Appropriations Committee to cut pubcasting’s total 2006 funding by more than 40 percent. In addition to reducing CPB funding, it eliminated the $23 million earmarked for Ready to Learn and denied requests for $39 million in digital transition funding and $50 million to replace the aging public TV satellite system.
In a separate bill, the House omitted funding for the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, as in past years, but the Senate okayed $22 million for PTFP last week. Differences between House and Senate budget bills will be reconciled in conference later this summer.
The restoration of funds was especially welcome to smaller and rural pubcasters that depend more heavily on CPB Community Service Grants. While CSGs compose a small slice of the budget for a large station such as San Francisco’s KQED — $1 million out of a $43 million total budget — they can represent half the TV budget for stations such as WNMU in Marquette, Mich.
“We’re thankful because we were absolutely in jeopardy if the CPB cuts went through,” said Eric Smith, g.m. of WNMU. “But we’re relying on PTFP funds to make the final jump to digital, so we hope the rest of it will be resolved.”
Nashville PTV President Steve Bass said he was surprised and thrilled to see nearly 40 percent of Republicans voting for the amendment. Bass credited constituent contacts and Leach’s co-sponsorship of the amendment.
Leach was not available for comment, but during the House session he spoke passionately about pubcasting’s value. Americans will never agree on all matters of artistic taste, the Iowa legislator said, but “what we can all do is respect the honesty and quality and First Amendment rights. It is these qualities … that public broadcasting symbolizes.”
System leaders hope to find comparable enthusiasm in the Senate as they work to restore Ready to Learn, which the House cut even though it had been in President Bush’s budget. The Senate will take up the CPB funding issue July 14.
However, Bass is among those who think the worst of the funding fight is over.
“Not to minimize the challenges ahead, but if you look at the impact of $100 million lost in the CPB appropriation this fall, it would have been really ugly,” he said. “That we were able to put that aside was really important.”
Red dogs, fat cats, billionaire birds
Days earlier, when pubcasters were mobilizing to oppose the House cutback, Hill staffers made it clear that stations would have to lead the way in restoring funding, Lawson said.
“The Senate gave us two messages,” he said. “They said, ‘One, we can’t restore a cut this large. And two, if you’re not going to fight for yourselves, why should we fight for you?’”
In response, more than 100 APTS member stations and a majority of NPR affiliates took to the airwaves, posted website notices and deployed email lists to urge viewers and listeners to contact their senators and representatives.
Some pubcasters were concerned about alienating generally supportive representatives by drumming up constituent calls, Bass said, but his contacts in Congress said the on-air alerts kept the issue “on the front burner.”
“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Bass said of the decision to appeal to viewers. The Nashville spot asked viewers if they thought pubcasting was worth $1 per citizen per year and directed them to contact their elected officials.
KERA in Dallas went “full bore” with TV and radio spots, emails and web posts, said Sharon Philippart, communications v.p. While pitching memberships during a pledge drive, on-air talent for Cleveland’s WCPN-FM mentioned the proposed funding cuts during each break and referred listeners to the station’s website for more details, according to Jerry Wareham, president.
Pubcasting also found support from advocacy groups that were already galvanized by the tales of CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s secretive efforts.
Cyber-organizer extraordinaire MoveOn.org gathered more than 1 million signatures in support of restoring funding, and groups such as Free Press continue to urge people to keep the pressure on to make up the remainder in the Senate. While the progressive groups proved helpful, pubcasters strove to remain nonpartisan in their pleas for help.
Things were different on Capitol Hill, however. At a rally starring PBS characters such as Clifford the Big Red Dog, congressional characters such as Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.), derided Republicans’ quest to give cash to, in Dingell’s words, “fat cats” instead of “Big Red Dogs.”
“By slashing these programs, Republicans are pulling the rug out from under parents,” Clinton said.
Though many Republicans voted for the restored funding, the vocal ones tended to oppose it. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) argued that pubcasters are already rich from selling toys and need no more assistance. Her presentation included a poster of Big Bird wearing a top hat and surrounded by piles of cash.
“If we can’t get this billionaire out of the public trough, how can we cut spending?” she asked.
In another fruitless move on the other side of the aisle, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment June 24 to prohibit CPB officials from using federal funds “to exercise any direction, supervision or control” over pubcasting content or distribution. The measure failed 218-187.
|Votes for Obey amendment,
Reported with help from Karen Everhart