House Vote Spares Public Broadcasting Funds

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 24, 2005

Unable to lower the budget ax on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service, the House agreed by a wide margin yesterday to restore funds to public broadcasting, as lawmakers struggled to pass the most politically painful spending bill so far this year.

The House voted 284 to 140 to add back $100 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's fiscal 2006 budget that had been cut in a committee, and to reverse a committee decision to eliminate all funding for the CPB within two years. The vote, which drew the support of 87 Republicans, followed a public relations blitz by public radio and TV stations, which fomented a widespread protest campaign by broadcasting ads that urged viewers and listeners to call their congressional offices.

Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive of PBS in Alexandria, called the vote "a huge moral victory for public broadcasting and a resounding confirmation of the broad, diverse, nonpartisan support that PBS and our stations enjoy across the country."

Even the sponsors of the bill were lukewarm in their resistance to the amendment to restore funding yesterday. "Not that I dislike public television," said Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that produced the legislation. He noted that his grandchild is a fan of Elmo, a character on "Sesame Street." But, he added, "we have limited amounts of money."

The CPB is a congressionally chartered agency that passes federal money to hundreds of public TV and radio stations. Federal funding makes up about 15 percent of public broadcasting's total revenue, but the money is especially critical for small and rural radio stations that operate on limited budgets. The funding is also vital to PBS and National Public Radio, but only indirectly. NPR and PBS receive programming fees paid by stations that receive direct federal support.

Regula's bill would set tight fiscal 2006 funding levels for the federal health, education and labor departments, including the termination of 57 programs, such as rural emergency medical services and dropout prevention. The reductions would save a total of $2.8 billion and are part of an effort by President Bush and GOP congressional leaders to reduce the federal budget deficit, which has risen to record levels in recent years.

But Elmo and Big Bird remain at risk. The House did not restore all of the public broadcasting funding cuts proposed for 2006. Although yesterday's amendment -- sponsored by Reps. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa) -- would bump CPB's general budget back to $400 million, the 2005 funding level, an additional $102.4 million that had been shorn from separate public broadcasting programs was not restored. That money underwrites the production of such PBS children's programs as "Sesame Street," "Arthur" and "Postcards From Buster." The money that would be cut also pays for satellite technology, basic equipment purchases and a federal mandate program to convert public TV stations from analog transmission to digital signal technology.

"Ultimately, it's a very significant step but it's only a step," said Ken Stern, executive vice president of NPR, referring to the House vote.

He said the money is still not sufficient to meet public broadcasters' needs. The House funding is lower than the president's proposed budget of $410 million and down from last year's total of $400 million, plus $102.4 million in related programs. "If this is the final number, it will pose a lot of hardships on public broadcasting," Stern said.

Public broadcasters are counting on the Senate, which has traditionally been more hospitable to them than the House, to restore full funding.

Although other cuts in the bill attracted far less attention, many are just as hard for lawmakers to digest. As debate on the measure unfolded yesterday with a final vote expected today, Republicans joined Democrats in parading to the floor to try to save favorite causes.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), complained about the demise of a community health care initiative that targets the uninsured. The cut would save $83 million, but Wamp argued that the program has provided health care access to millions of uninsured people and "embodies exactly the kind of innovative approach to health care" that lawmakers want the federal government to pursue more aggressively.

Regula noted that it was Bush who proposed terminating the program and said, "We felt we had to accept the president's proposal."

Other targets for elimination include literacy training for prisoners, maternity group-home funding, and various scholarship and student loan programs. Rural health and specialty education programs would be especially hard hit under the House bill.

Rep. Cathy McMorris (R-Wash.) bemoaned cuts to a training program for health care providers that she said has proved highly effective at steering doctors, nurses, dentists and lab technicians to rural communities.

"I hope you will be able to address this issue in conference," she told Regula on the floor. He responded: "I will try to address this problem."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company