Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado has attempted to ax National Public Radio out of the federal budget for years. The third-term Republican first proposed such a measure in 2007 as a conservative freshman in the Pelosi chamber. It went nowhere. Since then, he has battled on, working the cloakroom and speaking out on the House floor.
This afternoon, Lamborn saw his cause take a significant step forward: The House voted to dry up a gusher of federal dollars that has long been directed toward NPR programming.
For Lamborn, victory is sweet. “It has not sunk in yet, I’m still pinching myself,” he says as we chat in his Capitol Hill office. NPR’s recent stumbles, he acknowledges, coupled with a feisty GOP majority, enabled the bill to pass: “You have to be out in the vineyards working away. Sometimes your efforts are recognized, sometimes you toil in obscurity.”
Lamborn’s legislation unexpectedly caught fire last week after filmmaker James O’Keefe taped Ron Schiller, an NPR fundraising executive, claiming that the radio organization would be “better off in the long run without federal funding.” Schiller also made derogatory comments about the Tea Party movement and Republicans.
Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive, resigned in the aftermath. (The two Schillers are not related.) Lamborn began to move quickly toward a floor vote, hoping to borrow the heat of the exposé for his legislation. He huddled with House leaders and reached out to freshman members.
“Tactically speaking, I knew that it would be a useful thing, because [the comments] were very offensive,” he observes. “Some people are more likely to vote against something if they are offended. I’ll take their votes, whatever their reason.”
Lamborn points out that the O’Keefe sting is but one example of how the tie between the federal government and NPR has become unseemly. The firing of journalist Juan Williams last October, for saying that he became “nervous” when sharing a flight with Muslims, was seen as move to enforce liberal orthodoxy. Weeks after Williams was ousted, Lamborn, along with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, proposed a bill to gut NPR funds during the lame-duck Congress. It failed.
But that vote, Lamborn says, was crucial in building momentum for his current effort. With Republicans already on the record about NPR, bringing up a bill this week was not the usual start-from-scratch legislative chore. He had laid the groundwork.
House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor were eager to join the fight. In recent weeks, both have championed spending cuts. H.R. 1, the House GOP’s lead spending bill, zeros out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the prime backer of public television. Turning toward NPR was a natural policy maneuver.
Cantor says Lamborn’s bill is important because it stops taxpayer dollars from being used to “espouse positions that may not be reflective of the majority of the people.” In rocky economic times, he says, people are much more aware of how the federal government needs to focus on “priorities.” Besides, he says, “NPR’s own folks say they don’t need taxpayer funding, so this should not be controversial.”
Cantor adds that Schiller’s comments were “unacceptable,” so moving Lamborn’s bill to the floor was appropriate. “It was a confluence of events,” he says. “But it certainly meets the test, in terms of what we are looking for, about what we should be spending taxpayer dollars on and what we should not.”
Boehner agrees. “Washington is now borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends,” he says. “Given the stakes for our kids and grandkids, why is Congress spending taxpayers’ money to support a radio network that, by its own admission, could survive and thrive without public funding?”
Moving ahead, the bill faces an uphill climb in the Senate, where Lamborn says both Democrats and Republicans are hesitant to embrace it. “Some of the senators did not face the voters last year, so I do not think that they understand the anger out there about spending,” he surmises. But there is a glimmer of hope: Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a leading conservative, has written op-eds and spoken up about the need to defund NPR.
The Obama White House, for its part, is taking up arms. In a statement, the administration says that it “strongly opposes” Lamborn’s bill. “Undercutting funding for these radio stations, notably ones in rural areas where such outlets are already scarce, would result in communities losing valuable programming, and some stations could be forced to shut down altogether.”
According to Lamborn, the bill is only a first step. He would like to do more than block federal funds from underwriting NPR programming, which is, in essence, what his bill does. In the future, slashing the National Endowment for the Arts and other sources of public-broadcasting funds will be at the top of his to-do list.
Lamborn is acutely aware that Democrats have criticized his bill for not actually cutting federal spending. Instead, it prohibits tax dollars from funding NPR programs. Federal funds can still be used to support public radio — just not NPR programming. The bill also bars cash from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Arts from being ladled into NPR programs.
“This bill has no effect whatsoever on the deficit, and saves no money, not a dime,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.) on the House floor. “This is a purely ideological bill, so our members can go home and brag about what they have done to public radio.”
Lamborn is itching to do more. But, for the time being, he is pleased with the funding restrictions. “Money is fungible,” he says. “That’s why we wrote it that way.”
Most House Republicans tell NRO that voting “aye” today was a no-brainer. Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio says Ron Schiller said a “stupid thing for someone in that kind of a position to say.” Rep. Devin Nunes of California concurs: “For years, NPR has been leaning to the far left,” he says. “Now they have a great opportunity to get the federal government out of their business.”
Still, not everyone relishes the public flogging of the highbrow radio network. Rep. David Dreier (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee, is an NPR fan, but it fell to him to usher the bill onto the legislative calendar on Wednesday afternoon. “I make no bones about being an enthusiastic supporter of National Public Radio,” he said at the rules session. “I have participated in fundraising drives and listened to every single one of the programs. Car Talk is one of my favorites.” But even Dreier, an avid listener, said that it is time for the federal government to detach itself.
“It is unfortunate to see the disarray at NPR,” Lamborn says, reflecting on the fracas. “It is so embarrassing, you want to hide your eyes.” But today he is smiling.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.