Partisan pols clash over pubcaster coin

House subcommittee tries to cut funding for CPB

WASHINGTON — Given the corrosively partisan atmosphere in Washington, with Republicans and Democrats fighting over everything from judicial nominees to children’s shows, it’s no wonder liberals cried foul Thursday when a House subcommittee proposed to reduce funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Republicans, they said, were trying to bankrupt or destroy public broadcasting purely for ideological reasons.

But in a city where even a ham sandwich is suspected of harboring a partisan agenda, this may be one instance in which there’s actually less politics than meets the eye.

Deliberating on its part of President Bush’s fiscal year 2006 budget requests, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Related Agencies approved by voice vote a draft bill authorizing a total $142.5 billion in discretionary spending.

Among the myriad line items — some of which drew budget increases, others decreases — was the CPB budget, which subcommittee Republicans proposed to reduce from $400 million to $300 million.

Also cut were special related funding initiatives, such as $23.3 million the administration had requested for PBS’ Ready to Learn programming for kids.

The subcommittee zeroed out another $80 million requested to help public broadcasters make the transition to digital signals as well as fund satellite upgrades.

Subcommittee Democrats and their allies protested, claiming the GOP was punishing public broadcasting for a long-alleged liberal bias.

In a joint statement, Democrats said, “Republican leaders have been using every vehicle of the federal government to push their right-wing ideology. They are stacking the courts with right-wing judges, they changed House ethic rules to protect their members, and recently they’ve turned their focus onto public broadcasting.”

Citing CPB chairman Kenneth Tomlinson’s much publicized recent comments that public broadcasting programming, which CPB helps underwrite, needs a conservative counterbalance, the statement continued, “First, Republicans tried to co-opt America’s public broadcasting stations. Now, they’re trying to bankrupt them.”

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) went further, issuing a statement saying, “Republicans are targeting Elmo and ‘Sesame Street’ for destruction.”

However, no subcommittee Republicans had criticized public broadcasting as biased. They denied the accusations, claiming they were only doing the unpleasant job of finding ways to shrink a federal deficit of about $400 billion.

More important, political players and observers alike know that a draft bill at subcommittee level means very little in terms of the final outcome. Funds cut at lower levels in the appropriations process often end up restored at higher levels — as public broadcasters can attest.

This isn’t the first time pubcasting funds have been slashed only to be replaced later (usually in the Senate, where a number of prominent Republicans as well as Democrats support CPB and PBS.)

Still, the Assn. of Public Television Stations claimed the zeroing out of Ready to Learn was political payback. RTL produces “Postcards From Buster,” an episode of which drew fire from the administration because it featured a lesbian couple.

APTS prexy-chief John Lawson issued a statement saying, “The actions of the House subcommittee are nothing less than a direct attack on public television and radio. They are also an attack on some of the last, locally controlled and independent media voices in our country. This is not how a democracy is supposed to run. This constitutes at least malicious wounding, if not outright attempted murder of public broadcasting in America.”

But the administration had requested $23.3 million specifically for RTL – only $100,000 less, in fact, than what PBS had requested to fund the programming initiative. The Senate could restore the funding at the amount PBS requested.

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