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House votes to cut off NPR funding

Republican leaders rush a bill to the floor, saying taxpayer money could be better spent elsewhere.

March 17, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Vivian Schiller resigned as National Public Radio CEO amid controversy surrounding anti-"tea party" comments made by another NPR executive.
Vivian Schiller resigned as National Public Radio CEO amid controversy… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington — With wounds still fresh from a hidden video scandal, National Public Radio was dealt another blow Thursday when the House approved a bill that would block the flow of taxpayer dollars to the media organization.

The legislation, approved along party lines, was rushed to the floor by Republican leaders a week after an NPR executive was caught on tape appearing to make disparaging remarks about conservatives and the "tea party" movement. The executive and NPR Chief Executive Vivian Schiller both resigned over the issue, even as questions linger over whether the comments were fairly represented by the conservative activist who edited the video.

But the Republican-led House pounced on the frequent target for many on the right, who accuse NPR of bias and contend that the organization no longer needs public support. The bill approved Thursday would cut off the thin stream of direct federal money to NPR and would prohibit its local affiliates from using federal dollars to purchase programming from NPR or any other source.

Such restrictions could put pressure on local stations to find new revenue sources or cut back on expenses, although to what degree would vary. The affiliates received just 6% of their revenue from government sources, according to a 2008 report. NPR took in $56 million in programming fees last year, accounting for more than a third of its revenue.

NPR said the bill was "a direct effort to weaken public radio that would ultimately choke local stations" and pose a hardship to communities.

It was the second time this year that Republicans in the House have taken aim at public media. A budget bill passed last month sought to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funnels money to public radio and television stations.

That bill was rejected by the Senate, and Thursday's effort was expected to hit the same roadblock. The Obama administration issued a statement opposing the legislation.

But as long as the talk in Washington is on budget cutting, NPR is likely to remain a target. Republican lawmakers cast the new bill as a step toward fiscal responsibility.

"We need to refocus on what our core mission is. We should not use taxpayer dollars that American citizens worked hard to earn for something that can be paid for privately," Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) said.

NPR receives about $5 million directly from various federal agencies, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). A nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimate requested by Democrats found that the bill would not have an effect on federal spending.

The bill would deeply complicate accounting measures for the local stations that receive federal grants, said Mikel Ellcessor, general manager at WDET in Detroit.

"This doesn't eliminate funding; it just attacks the underlying business model," he said. "It would result in a Kafkaesque financial reporting and management structure that has nothing to do with improving our programming."

Unlike the earlier budget bill, Lamborn's bill specifically focused on NPR, leaving untouched local public television stations and PBS, groups less likely to be accused of political bias.

Democrats pointed to that fact, as well as the small amount of money at stake, to accuse Republicans of pursuing an agenda that pleases the conservative base under the guise of budget-cutting.

Some mocked the speed with which leadership brought the bill to the floor. The bill did not go through the committee process and came to the floor after an "emergency" meeting of the Rules Committee.

"What would be the emergency in the United States?" asked Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "The cost of the war? The damage of the war? Unemployment figures? The deficit? Home foreclosure? The tragedy in Japan? A no-fly zone over Libya? No, the emergency is that they want to destroy National Public Radio."

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) came to the floor with a "Save Click and Clack" poster, a reference to the popular "Car Talk" program.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) argued that NPR's content was frequently of little use to many Americans.

"NPR and its programming often veer far from what most Americans would like to see as far as the expenditure of their taxpayer dollars," he said.

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