Political showmanship over NPR won't save any money
The 'defunding NPR' bill that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week won't cut off any federal money but bars roughly 800 local public-radio stations from using federal money to buy any programming.
Seattle Times staff columnist
You may not have heard, but last week there was an emergency in the U.S. House of Representatives.
They called what's known as an "emergency meeting." They use that designation when they want to send crucial, time-sensitive laws straight to a full House vote without the usual public hearings, amendments or other deliberations.
All told it took only 55 hours from the time the proposed law was introduced (8:21 a.m. Tuesday) to final passage (3:24 p.m. Thursday).
"We can save a program, or we can save our country," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., the sponsor of the bill, H.R. 1076.
What was the emergency?
National Public Radio.
War engulfs Libya. Radiation showers Asia. And National Public Radio continues to beam out its broadcasts.
It's NPR or America. Take your pick.
As much of a stretch as this was, I figured the emergency was probably fiscal — to chip away at the federal budget deficit by cutting some taxpayer-supported public radio.
Even I think that might not be a bad idea. I have been known to appear on public-radio panels where we try to exchange witty bon mots in earnest voices. Plus I drive a Volvo. But NPR, the national network, gets only 3 percent of its budget from federal grants. Giving that up hardly constitutes a crisis.
It turns out the emergency couldn't have been fiscal, though. Because the bill doesn't save taxpayers any money.
This I was surprised to learn from the office of Congressman Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, who was one of only seven Republicans to vote against a measure that was nevertheless billed as "defunding NPR."
"H.R. 1076 impacts public radio beyond NPR, to limit local public radio stations' ability to provide news, entertainment and public debate to thousands of listeners," wrote a staffer in Reichert's office, when I asked about his vote. "Also, there is no budget savings from the legislation."
That's kind of a loaded "also." No savings? So what was the emergency about?
The bill that passed the House last week wouldn't cut off any federal money.
What it does is bar the roughly 800 local public-radio stations from using federal money to buy any programming. Those stations could still get federal grants, but couldn't use that money to buy programs from anywhere.
This is kind of like how Congress bans the use of federal money in abortions. Only here we're talking about "Car Talk" or "All Things Considered."
Big Seattle-area stations such as KUOW or KPLU would be fine. Each gets 6 to 8 percent of its budget from federal grants now. They could still get that money to pay people or buy equipment, while using listener donations to buy "All Things Considered."
So who gets gored by this? In the near term it would be the little guys.
Alaska's congressman, Don Young, also a Republican, said tiny stations out in the bush often get 30 to 50 percent of their budgets from federal grants. They might be able to stay in business, but they couldn't buy any national news.
"In many cases, these radio stations are the ONLY broadcast signal that many Alaskans get," Young said. "To deny them access to basic news, early-childhood-education programming, and even emergency alerts, merely to serve a political agenda, is irresponsible."
I added those italics because it's the real point of this emergency. It's not fiscal but ideological. Young is saying this wasn't about the deficit but scoring cheap points by bashing an institution much of the right doesn't like.
Should taxpayers subsidize any radio at all? I think so. We own the airwaves, after all.
But regardless of that debate, this episode shows how unserious the new U.S. House is. Not just about public radio but about the deficit. They could propose strategic cuts that would preserve the radio network Don Young is talking about while also chipping away at the deficit. They did neither.
If this is a sign of deficit politics to come, then there really is an emergency.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-2086
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