The federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting raised strong objections on constitutional grounds Tuesday to Congress’ requirement that an inspector general be appointed to oversee how the corporation spends its money.
At their regular meeting and at a press conference, officials of the corporation, which distributes federal funds to the nation’s public TV and radio stations, argued that the appointment of an inspector general could open the door to government interference with program content and violate the First Amendment.
While saying they will comply with the law and appoint an inspector general in April, the agency’s board of directors, in a unanimous resolution, warned that they will monitor the inspector’s activities and “will be prepared to take any appropriate action to remove CPB” from the effects of the law.
The corporation urged Congress to change its mind about including the agency among those “designated federal entities” that are now required to appoint an inspector general to audit expenditures.
“Threats to First Amendment rights are sometimes hard to recognize, but this one is very clear,” said board chairman Ken Towery, a Texas newspaper publisher and former government official. “The Inspector General Act Amendments pose a very real and dangerous threat to public broadcasters.”
Donald Ledwig, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is receiving $228 million in federal funds this year, noted that many public TV programs deal with “critical and touchy issues in our society,” from “War and Peace in the Nuclear Age” to “The AIDS Quarterly.”
“Having an inspector general in a position to question the usefulness or appropriateness of expenditure of program dollars could have a particularly chilling effect on programming and also violate the recipients’ First Amendment rights,” he said.
The inspector general amendments, passed in October, list the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and 32 other federally funded agencies or bodies as “designated federal entities” requiring an inspector general to audit expenditures “to promote economy and efficiency and to prevent fraud and abuse in the administration of programs.”
The inspector general also has subpoena powers to determine whether an expenditure is wasteful, and twice a year must report to Congress.
Among the other agencies listed are the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Unlike Cabinet departments and larger agencies where an inspector general is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the smaller agencies, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, can appoint their own inspectors general. Ledwig pointed out, however, that a firing would have to be reviewed by Congress.
Corporation for Public Broadcasting board member Daniel Brenner, director of the communications law program at UCLA, argued that recipients of CPB funding are already audited to make sure they comply with the corporation’s contracts and grants, and that virtually every public broadcasting station is audited every three years.
Congress “unknowingly” has put itself and the corporation in “an awkward position with this law,” he said.
“On the one hand,” Brenner said, “it says CPB must fund alternative programming not available elsewhere and must act as a ‘heat shield’ against political interference in this programming. On the other hand, it is saying the editorial and creative judgment used to develop those programs is open to second-guessing by an inspector general with a government connection.”
Brenner raised the possibility that individual members of Congress could try to influence an inspector general about specific programs. He said he had little doubt that an inspector general “could be the kryptonite that could melt the CPB heat shield.”
A key Senate staff member, who insisted that her name not be used, dismissed the corporation’s First Amendment concerns as “red herrings.”
The staffer pointed out that the original inspectors general law of 1978 and the new amendments specifically say the inspector general “does not have program operating responsibilities.”
Public broadcasting officials argue that the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which set up the corporation, specifically established it as “a nonprofit corporation . . . which will not be an agency or establishment of the U.S. government.”
“We met with CPB officials a number of times,” the Senate staffer said, “and we didn’t think their arguments were enough to persuade us to treat them differently than others we were dealing with.”
The establishment of inspectors general was greeted more sanguinely at both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The heads of the audit departments at each agency will take on the added functions.
“I think it’s a good move,” said Jack Basso, deputy director of administration for the arts endowment. “When you’re talking about that amount of money"--currently $169.1 million for his agency--"there should be reasonable oversight.”
Asked whether the inspector general would have anything to do with which arts organization or artist gets funded, Basso insisted: “Oh no no no! Nothing to do with that. We’re really reviewing whether the federal grants and procedures are in effect being followed. It doesn’t have anything to do with who gets the money.”
And on the same question of who gets funded, Sheldon Bernstein, who had been director of the audit office at the humanities endowment, and who will become inspector general next month, said, “I don’t think we have the power to look into that.”