House vote would axe CPB in 2013

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Last time, in 2005, the emissary to Congress was Clifford the Big Red Dog. This time, it’s an aardvark named Arthur. Last time, lawmakers showed off boxes of 1 million petitions with signatures; now, the million signatures are digital.

Back then, when the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee tried for a 25 percent cut in the CPB appropriation, public support moved the House to save it by a 2-to-1 vote.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) meets the press Feb. 16 before his unsuccessful attempt to keep CPB funds in the House bill. With him are an Arthur surrogate and five House Democrats who support federal aid, left to right: Paul Tonko (N.Y.), Sam Farr (Calif.), Edward Markey (Mass.), Betty McCollum (Minn.) and Nita Lowey (N.Y.). (Photo: Dru Sefton, Current.)

This year, no such luck. If saviors arrive, they’ll have to come from the Senate, as they have in numerous past years.

Very early on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 19 [2011], about 4:30, the House approved the Continuing Resolution on a party-line vote of 235-189 that would cut CPB’s entire $460-million advance appropriation for fiscal 2013, two years from now, plus billions from federal spending this fiscal year.

[This would include this year’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grants, plus any remaining CPB funds for this year that haven’t already been “obligated” by contract or grant agreement, according to Tom Thomas of the Station Resource Group, reached over the holiday. Second installments of stations’ Community Service Grants will not be affected, he said. CPB said it plans to mail those checks within two weeks, on schedule.]

The one amendment that would have restored that funding, put forward by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), was tossed out just before midnight on Feb. 16 on a procedural motion.

It was just the first skirmish in what’s expected to be a protracted fight to maintain federal aid to pubcasters. This legislative vehicle —  a Continuing Resolution to keep the government running for FY11, which began almost five months ago — now proceeds to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the approved reductions “draconian.” Six bills loom in the Senate or the House to ban use of federal funds to pay for NPR programming, or zero out all of public broadcasting.

Public TV and public radio are regrouping for the fight, with NPR keeping a low profile after becoming a partisan issue with the Juan Williams affair. First the net stepped back from its usual lobbying role in the systemwide 170 Million defensive campaign, with American Public Media representing radio in partnership with the Association of Public Television Stations.

Then on Feb. 15, NPR took another step back, endorsing a joint defense of pubTV and pubradio: a new, temporary Public Media Association to be headed by APTS President Patrick Butler.

“An ideological attack”

The failure of Amendment 436 must not have been a surprise to  Blumenauer, who co-chairs the bipartisan Public Broadcasting Caucus. Earlier that day, at a press conference outside the Capitol attended by six House members and an unidentified person in an Arthur costume, Blumenauer said that this round of the long battle over federal aid to pubcasting had a very different feel than the fight in 2005. That year, the House vote for CPB included 87 Republicans. “Back then, there was a strong, moderate, thoughtful Republican base of support,” he said. “Now there is a partisan undercurrent that is unsettling.”

At the press opp with Arthur, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) called the GOP’s move to zero-out CPB “an ideological attack.” Conservatives have turned up the volume on their complaints about government aid to pubcasting since October, when NPR fired correspondent Juan Williams for saying on Fox News that Muslims in religious garb on an airliner made him “nervous” (Current, Nov. 1, 2010).

The Blumenauer amendment was gaveled down on a procedural issue at 11:43 p.m. Feb. 16, as House members droned through discussions about more than 400 amendments to H.R. 1. Blumenauer aimed to retain the $460 million for CPB in the continuing resolution by eliminating hefty federal deductions on taxable income from oil and gas wells.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) raised a point of order, asserting that a funding offset like Blumenauer’s was not allowed in this general appropriations bill. The chair agreed, and that was that.

“It’s not that Democrats tried to do something nonsensical here — it’s that Republicans have set up the rules to tie our hands,” Blumenauer spokesman Derek Schlickeisen told Current. “If you’re going to offset the funding for CPB, you have to do it within the Labor-HHS bill, as opposed to anywhere else within the budget. That’s what Republicans objected to. This forces us to find the offset within a very narrow set of programs that families depend on, and which are not wasteful.”

As Blumenauer noted from the floor: “The public doesn’t care whether the deficit is reduced by closing a tax loophole or reducing spending. I’ll bet it would rather stop another giveaway to large oil companies rather than cutting programs that are important to them. For that matter, I think the voters like public broadcasting a lot more than they like Congress.”

“Big Oil is going to get all the breaks that they want, and it might come at the expense of children’s television or poor people,” Markey said.

Budget-cutters argue that the reductions wouldn’t hurt programs that people really like or need. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) is author of H.R. 68, which would defund CPB, and H.R. 69, which would prohibit pubradio stations from using CPB money to purchase NPR programming. He said during debate on Blumenauer’s amendment, “When something puts out good quality programming, like [CPB] does, they could survive, if they wanted to go into the free market and get funding — whether it’s selling advertising or something like that. They are perfectly capable of surviving, and not just surviving but thriving in the open market because they do have some good-quality programming. They don’t need to rely on taxpayers.”

Lamborn’s attitude is held by many new members of Congress, particularly Tea Partiers who see public broadcasting funding not only as nonessential in the light of a $1.7 trillion budget deficit, but also as ideologically repellent: The system is run by liberals, they say, as evidenced by NPR’s treatment of Williams.

Aiming to play well together

Public radio began late last year to devise a better-coordinated response. Dave Edwards, chair of the NPR Board, began talking to Butler, a former public policy analyst and government relations manager for several large media companies, even before Butler took the APTS helm on Jan. 1. Edwards had already been in discussions with NPR President Vivian Schiller about framing the attack.

Edwards said NPR and APTS “got serious” about joining advocacy efforts in January and created the Public Media Association, which he characterized as an “initiative” as opposed to a formal entity.

The association, which will likely get to work in a matter of weeks, will be governed by a legislative council of four pubradio leaders named by the NPR Board and four public TV leaders selected by the board of APTS Action, the lobbying arm of APTS, along with Butler and Schiller. Butler will oversee the effort. Mike Riksen, NPR’s v.p. for policy and representation, will report directly to Butler on government funding issues.

Edwards said the group will exist as long as necessary. “We have to see if we can play well together,” he said. “Public TV and radio have never worked together in a coordinated fashion like this.”

The idea that such a coalition might become permanent has already encountered pushback from some stations. In a strongly worded posting on the Pubradio listserv, Ron Kramer, executive director of Jefferson Public Radio at Southern Oregon University, said that radio and television have different advocacy needs. “The only argument I can see for taking this step at this time involves my sense that NPR is, to some degree, presently perceived as ‘damaged goods’ on Capitol Hill,” he wrote.

Oregon Public Broadcasting President Steve Bass, who helped develop the NPR/APTS collaboration, conceded that “it’s largely public radio in the crosshairs” for this funding fight. But he denied the Williams controversy was the reason for the new partnership.

“All of us realize there’s a crisis,” he said. “We all have to deploy every resource against this, and operate efficiently and effectively. There’s no reason for different messages.”

Bass also cited Butler’s long connections with Congress. On a recent visit to eastern Oregon, Bass met with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, whose first words to him were, “Do you know my friend Pat Butler?”

“Pat has been in Washington a long time, and has a tremendous number of personal friendships and connections,” Bass said. “That could be extraordinarily valuable to the entire system. Why not leverage that against all of public broadcasting, rather than only use it for public TV?”

Schiller regards the alliance as temporary. Now is not the time to discuss how to handle public radio’s future legislative relations, she told stations in an e-mail. “I know many of you will have questions about the future of NPR’s representation role once the current crisis is over and the work of the PMA is done,” she said. “Questions about what will best serve us in the future are important and complex, and they can’t — and shouldn’t — be sorted out in the midst of what is the biggest challenge to federal funding in our history.”

The 170 Million Americans campaign site has logged more than 170,000 e-mails to Congress. On Feb. 16, progressive groups, Credo Action and Free Press collected more than 1 million signatures of support on virtual petitions.

And pubcasting has one especially important ally: President Barack Obama. He released his FY12 budget last week, which provides a $451 million advance appropriation for CPB in FY2014, a $6 million increase over FY12. Though the President didn’t cut CPB as his deficit commission leaders advised, his budget did recommend trimming some lesser budget lines. It provides only $6 million for the ongoing CPB Digital Initiative — $30 million less than FY10. It includes no funding for several lines: The Department of Education’s Ready to Learn literacy project; PTFP; and the Department of Agriculture’s rural digital program, which helps rural stations.

In his first press conference, new White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fielded a reporter’s question: Does the president see “universal American value” in public broadcasting? “The budget represents his priorities,” Carney said, “and I think you can read into that.”

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