The funding fate of public broadcasting moves into high gear today as the Republican-controlled House of Representatives begins debate on crucial questions of how much to cut from the individual budgets of federal departments and agencies in a $17.2-billion recision bill. At issue are funds allocated by previous Democratic Congresses, primarily a bevy of domestic programs from low-income housing to summer youth jobs.
The Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund the nation's 980 public television and radio stations, will be considered late today or Thursday. CPB got $285.6 million this year. With money from corporations, foundations, individual supporters and other sources, public TV and radio's annual income is $1.8 billion.
At the immediate juncture, a zeroing out of federal funding for non-commercial broadcasting, which House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called for after the GOP sweep of Congress in November, appears out of the picture. Instead, a steady downward slope looms.
The likely scenario in the House, according to congressional and public broadcasting sources, is that a formula for CPB worked out last month by an appropriations subcommittee will stand.
Under the formula, 15%, or $47 million, will be cut in 1996 from a previously allocated $305 million, bringing the total to $258 million; 30%, or $94 million, will be cut in 1997, from $315 million to $221 million. The full Appropriations Committee approved those numbers March 2.
After House passage, the recision bill moves to the Senate, where public broadcasting officials believe they probably will fare better. "There's always been a bigger bipartisan coalition (there) in support of public broadcasting," said a top CPB official, who did not wish to be named.
Interviews with two key Republican senators point in that direction. "I'm determined, as a general rule, (that) we've got to use a scalpel instead of a meat ax," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education. "I think there is a mandate to have a balanced budget by the year 2002. We're going to take a look at what the House says, but we're going to figure out for ourselves in the Senate what priorities we see to get to that objective."
Asked whether he viewed the 15%-30% formula as scalpel or meat ax, Specter compromised: "I'd say it falls somewhere in between, really."
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), a subcommittee member, said he disagrees with those who want to privatize public broadcasting, such as Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce Committee: "I think we need to maintain this source of funding, particularly for our local educational networks in the states. I know in our state they depend quite heavily on funding from the Corporation."
Potential amendments on both sides of the public broadcasting fight were filed with the House Rules Committee late Monday, but it was uncertain which, if any, would reach the floor.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) proposed an amendment to restore 90% of the CPB cuts for fiscal 1996 and to freeze it there for '97. It's part of a $4.8-billion restoration plan for health, education and labor. But whether he can get the amendment to the floor is uncertain. Rep. Gerald B. Solomon (R-N.Y.), chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, signaled last week in a letter to his colleagues that "any addition to a particular chapter of the bill would have to be offset by increasing recisions in the same chapter."
Such a rule, if approved, would block Obey's amendment. "I'm not about to cut education to fund public broadcasting," he said. "They make you choose between your children. It's an illegitimate process."
Another proposed amendment, filed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), would double CPB cuts--to $94 million for fiscal 1996 and $188 million fiscal 1997. And Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) filed an amendment excising about $100 million from public broadcasting each year, including fiscal 1995, to bring CPB funding down to zero.
If the House and Senate come up with different cuts for CPB, differences will be ironed out in a conference committee. The final bill then must be signed by President Clinton or overriden by a two-thirds vote in both houses to become law.
On March 3, Vice President Al Gore declared in a speech at American University that he and Clinton see public broadcasting "as a sound investment and a sound federal policy and a great value," and warned congressional Republicans that "if you try to kill it, we will fight you every step of the way."
But David Brugger, president of the Assn. of America's Public Television Stations in Washington, cautioned that, in a recision package, the President is "not going to consider us individually. It's either going to be the whole bill or not the whole bill."
Brugger said of the 15%-30% formula that "it's better than zero at this point," but added that if the 30% cut "sticks all the way through, it's going to be very harsh for some stations who are most dependent on federal dollars."
On Tuesday CPB President Richard Carlson told his board that the results would be "devastating. Some stations will be forced to close. . . . National programming will contract significantly. Local production will decline on the order of 40%."
In any case, these are just the early steps for public broadcasting on its long march to funding in the current budget-slashing environment. Later this spring, Clinton's budget proposal of $292 million for fiscal 1998 will be considered--and Gingrich could make a stand there. And public broadcasting will have to come before Pressler's Senate Commerce Committee this year or next for reauthorization on spending ceilings for fiscal year 1997 and beyond.
"There'll be people from public broadcasting on the Hill for the rest of the year," notes the CPB official.
Meanwhile, House subcommittee chairmen and public broadcasting officials have begun private meetings to discuss other methods of funding, such as license fees on the use of the airwaves, which Brugger says would "insulate programming from the political process."
In a memo to station officials on March 3, Carlson called the first meeting "cordial" and said that Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee of the Commerce Committee, "has told the Speaker that a continuation of public service is necessary."