The Cost of Hurricane Recovery

If an influential group of House Republicans gets its way, Big Bird will have to pay his own way to Sesame Street, and Masterpiece Theater will begin searching for product placement opportunities — all to fund the Hurricane Katrina recovery.

The Republican Study Committee, a conservative group within the House GOP caucus, has launched Operation Offset to cut spending by $102.1 billion in this year’s budget to help pay for rebuilding New Orleans and other devastated environs. Among the targets in the group’s bull’s-eye: The National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Officials estimate the rebuilding effort will exceed $200 billion, and many conservative lawmakers are uneasy about picking up that tab. It would add to a federal deficit that already had been projected to reach $314 billion.

“Congress must ensure that a catastrophe of nature does not become a catastrophe of debt for our children and grandchildren,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the committee’s chairman.

After some initial hesitation, House Republican leaders, as well as President Bush, agreed that offsetting budget cuts are in order, although what form they might take remains up for debate.

If the Republican Study Group gets its way, part of the savings will come from eliminating federal funding for the arts and public television. According to Pence, that would save the Treasury $1.8 billion over 10 years _ a down payment on the Katrina bill.

Federal arts funding has long been a target of Republican budget-cutters. In 1996, lawmakers not only slashed the appropriation to the National Endowment for the Arts by 39 percent but also adopted a provision to phase out the government’s financial support for the program over two years.

Eliminating the NEA, the federal government’s primary funding source for non-profit theater and dance companies, never came to pass, however, as the endowment adopted new rules to make the type of art in line for funding more palatable to budget writers.

In the late 1980s, the endowment encountered criticism for funding artists like photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, noted for his homoerotic images, and Andres Serrano, who raised hackles by dipping a crucifix into a vat of his urine. The agency responded with new regulations regarding its grant-making authority. In 1998, rather than shutter the operation, Congress reacted by ordering that state arts organizations receive a larger share of the fiscal pie.

This year, Congress approved an NEA funding level of $125.6 million. The Republican Study Committee acknowledged in a policy statement that while the NEA has shifted its focus over the years to funding more traditional arts programs _ dealing with areas like Shakespeare, folk music and opera _ “the NEA continues to fund programs that some believe are of questionable value and appropriateness.”

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a larger and more recognizable entity, receiving $368.8 million in the 2005 federal budget. The money supports educational and cultural programs offered over stations that are members of the Public Broadcast System _ Masterpiece Theater and Nova are prime examples _ and helps pay for National Public Radio.

Like the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has experienced its share of controversy, with conservatives complaining about liberal bias in its programming, although recent polls indicate viewers and listeners fail to detect any such slant. Kenneth Tomlinson, who recently stepped down as CPB chairman, ruffled feathers by seeking to bring what he characterized as balance to network programming, offering a public-affairs program hosted by conservative writer Tucker Carlson and a look at the workings of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.

Pence and the Republican Study Committee note that the CPB and the Public Broadcasting System “continue to use federal funding to pay for questionable programming, such as a documentary on sex education funded by the Playboy Foundation.” A lot of the programming, such as the popular children’s show Sesame Street, “could bring in enough annual revenues to cover the loss of federal funding.”

Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., one of those urging steep budget cuts to pay for hurricane recovery, said the initiative must be accomplished without raising taxes or adding to the national debt, which recently surpassed the $8 trillion mark.

“When the families of my district in western North Carolina have unforeseen expenses arise, they have to look for other, less-important items to cut from the family budget,” McHenry said. “Government needs to apply that same common sense. We must not allow the liberals in Congress to politicize this issue and use it as their latest excuse to raise taxes.”

McHenry cited Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, who said Hurricane Katrina destroyed every school in four of his state’s counties.

“Eliminating the federal share of CPB funding would free up $400 million this year,” he said. “That is enough money to build 40 elementary schools.”

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, McHenry said, already receives 85 percent of its funding from sources other than the federal government.

“Certainly, public television has its benefits, but we have to be responsible and choose our priorities,” he said. “What is more important, funding the Lehrer News Hour or building schools to educate our children?”

But Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Emergency Campaign for America’s Priorities, a group backed by organized labor to oppose budget cuts, said the effort has nothing to do with Katrina and everything to do with GOP efforts to salvage tax cuts enacted under President Bush, most of which have benefited the wealthy.

“The idea that these cuts are to offset Katrina relief is hogwash,” he said. “If offsets were a priority for this crowd, why has the GOP leadership refused to offset other spending such as rebuilding Iraq, Afghanistan or other operations in Iraq? The fact is this GOP effort is Robin Hood in reverse _ robbing from the poor to give to the rich _ and it ought to make GOP moderates, especially marginal members, very, very nervous.”

Americans for the Arts, a leading non-profit group dedicated to advancing the arts, added: “This is not the time to abandon a federal commitment to arts and culture” and advised supporters to raise the issue with their members of Congress.

“Needless to say, cutting this funding would not even make a dent in the need for hurricane relief, and at the same time it would deprive the affected areas of much-needed help in rebuilding their vital cultural sectors,” the group said in a statement.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)