It’s 1995 and the Republicans have just taken over both houses of Congress for the first time in decades. Energy levels and optimism are high, and the GOP has a deeply symbolic target in its crosshairs: PBS. If they can’t cut PBS, the rationale goes, they can’t cut anything. So Dick Armey, the House majority leader, puts on a tux and heads to some black-tie dinner. He shares a table with a prominent Senate Republican appropriator and his lovely wife, who sits on the board of some city or state board of arts. She shares the board with multimillionaires and the kind of people who have concert halls named after them. And her seat there is due, at least in part, to the fact that her husband has directed substantial federal sums to various art programs. The three of them chat, and the issue of PBS defunding comes up. The senator and his wife frown on the prospect. The next day, Armey recounts the evening’s conversation to some of his staff. “I asked myself, ‘Self, are we ever going to defund the NEA and PBS?’” Armey says. “And I said, ‘Not in this lifetime!’”
That’s the story according to Mike Franc, who was Armey’s communications director at the time. And so far, Armey’s prediction has been borne out, and more. Defunding the network is as contentious as ever; in fact, since Armey’s dinner, funding to PBS has increased substantially. And the best-made plans of Mitt Romney probably won’t change that.
A quick perusal of PBS through the ages: Congress set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. CPB’s website describes it as “the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.” It’s the conduit between taxpayers’ pockets and Big Bird. Now, it doesn’t actually move that much money, compared to how much Washington spends — CPB gets about $450 million a year, a minute fraction of the budget. But spending on CPB has risen since the ’90s, when it got about $150 million in 2012 dollars from the federal government. CPB grants provide about 12 percent of PBS’s funding, though the money covers different percentages of different stations’ budgets. But for such a small sum — and such a small percentage — it engenders outsized contention.
Cutting CPB funding is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. Conservatives argue that if we can’t cut a small sum from a program that has nothing to do with national defense or entitlements, we’ll have miserable luck cutting from anywhere else.
“It’s a great little microcosm of, how did we get in this mess? It really is,” says Pat Shortridge, a former aide for Armey. “You look it and you think, Wow, we’re still having this discussion, this should have been a slam dunk in the mid-1990s.”
Going after PBS is indicative of a larger outlook on the role of government spending — a dog whistle, if you will. But you have to be careful about when you blow the whistle, and that’s a lesson Romney should have learned from Gingrich. Quin Hillyer, who was the press secretary for the House Appropriations Committee when Republicans tried to cut CPB dollars, argues that Gingrich’s eagerness hamstrung their efforts. He blurted out their intentions without much planning, and without reassuring the public that Big Bird would be just fine.
“And now Romney’s gone out and done the same thing,” Hillyer says. “He’s sprung it on people and hasn’t made a case.”
But poor timing isn’t the only factor that’s made it hard for Republicans to end the Sesame Street subsidy. It’s politically tricky, in part because of local boards that oversee PBS affiliates. Franc argues that since so many powerful appropriators have spouses on the boards, they feel pressure to keep the money flowing. Giving federal funds to causes that benefit the arts lets them enjoy the social advantages of philanthropists without contributing any of their own money. And supporting PBS is also fashionable, according to Hillyer, both for would-be philanthropists and for members of the media.
“This is hitting them right in not just their ideological wheelhouse but their cultural snobbish wheelhouse,” he says. “They like to think of themselves as intellectuals, and intellectuals support federal funding for these supposedly intellectual pursuits.”
In that sense, you can see funding for CPB as reverse class warfare, since it takes money from everyone to fund the pursuits of the wealthy. And CPB makes some people pretty wealthy, too. That’s how Franc sees it.
“Tax dollars sent to Washington by the hotel maid in Branson, Missouri, is underwriting part of the very, very fabulous six- or seven-figure paycheck that some of these people in the PBS or NEA world are accruing,” he says.
And that all helps explain why Armey’s gloomy prediction has held true thus far. When it’s taboo for Republicans to go after public television, Big Bird shouldn’t worry too much about losing his federal handout.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.