The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday voted to restore $100 million for public television and radio broadcasting next year, reversing a Republican-led plan to cut spending deeply.
The funding fight played out as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting announced the controversial appointment of Patricia Harrison, a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, to be its new president.
With the House’s 284-140 vote to put $100 million back into the CPB’s budget for the fiscal year starting on Oct. 1, public broadcasting supporters in the House beat back charges from some Republicans that “Big Bird is a billionaire.”
Those Republicans argued that the widely marketed children’s television character was not in need of federal assistance.
If approved by the Senate later this summer, main CPB funding next year would stay at its current $400 million level.
“I’m tired of hearing how wealthy Big Bird is,” shouted Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, who noted that most local public television stations get little from revenues generated by Big Bird and other Public Broadcasting Service characters and rely heavily on CPB funds for operating expenses.
Ken Stern, executive vice president of National Public Radio, said the $100 million funding cut to CPB would have been “potentially devastating” to commercial-free radio stations, “especially those serving rural and minority constituencies.”
Some of them, Stern added, are the only radio stations serving remote areas in Alaska, Wyoming and other states.
PBS officials voiced similar concerns about the impact on small, local television stations.
PBS President Pat Mitchell, reacting to the appointment of Harrison, now a senior State Department official, voiced concerns about the choice of a former political activist to head an entity “which must be nonpartisan in both appearance and execution.”
Media reports in recent months have suggested attempts by CPB Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, a Republican, to quantify and counter what he considered left-wing bias in PBS programs.
Earlier this year, Tomlinson charged that publicly-funded television practiced “liberal advocacy journalism.” That accusation was denied by PBS, which is primarily known for airing children’s educational programs like “Sesame Street” and documentaries on topics ranging from baseball to blues music.
Democrats have called for Tomlinson’s resignation, accusing him of trying to advance his own political agenda in public broadcasting. A CPB inspector general is investigating Tomlinson’s hiring of outside researchers to gauge whether some public programming was biased.
Even with the $100 million added back, the House bill would reduce overall funding for public broadcasting. As a result, public television would have to find alternative ways to pay for satellite upgrades and a mandated conversion to digital broadcasting.
As in past funding fights over public broadcasting, supporters arranged for some of PBS’s cartoon characters, including Clifford the Big Red Dog, to visit Capitol Hill this week to rally support.
Rep. David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who worked to restore the funds, complained the fight over public broadcasting overshadowed more serious cuts in the $142.5 billion bill to fund education, health and labor programs.
The White House’s budget office, which reviews all legislation, also expressed concern that some health and education programs were being underfunded by the bill.
But Rep. Ralph Regula, the Ohio Republican who wrote the measure, said it was “a balanced bill … a recognition that we have limited resources” created by a Republican-enacted budget that tries to keep the lid on domestic spending while advancing tax cuts.