Appropriations: Defunding NPR

The funniest aftereffect of GOP posturing that they will actively work to defund NPR in the wake of the Juan Williams firing is the claim by NPR and its friends in the media that the money it gets from the gummint is negligible, such that defunding will have little to no effect on its operations. This exchange on MSNBC is typical.
CHUCK TODD: NPR says the feelings Williams expressed were not compatible with his job as a news analyst, and that's drawn fire from the right, including calls to cut NPR's limited amount of federal funding. Norah O'Donnell is MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent. So Norah, how real are these threats about seeing its federal funding, and how much money, what percentage of NPR's budget is federal funds, taxpayer money?

NORAH O'DONNELL: It's about 1-3% that NPR receives in some taxpayer money. Most of NPR is funded through their local stations, through corporations, through the people who like NPR, private donations. They apply for grants and then, to the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, and some of that is federal money [try virtually all], so 1-3% is what they say.

TODD: But a very small amount.

O'DONNELL: It's a very small amount. So cutting their funding won't really cripple NPR.

I am not going to claim to know with metaphysical certitude what percentage of NPR's (or PBS's) budget is funded by the Feds because it won't matter during the defunding debate. At all. That's because NPR/PBS are perrenial targets of flinty-eyed budget cutters, who have always been able to emerge unscathed from funding battles because their cultural cache has traditionally outweighed whatever political momentum conservatives might have. Just you watch, six months from now Chuck Todd and Norah O'Donnell will be bemoaning how the GOP is destroying American culture by threatening to cut NPR's budget.

I well remember efforts to defund PBS back in the budget-cutting Nineties. This was back in the Gingrich Revolution/Ross Perot days, when voters professed great interest in restraining the growth of deficits. And, yet the conversation magically turned to penny-ante PBS, rather than the real budget busters like Social Security and Medicare, not to mention useless bureaucracies like HUD and the Departments of Energy and Education. Democrats on the Hill (I forget if it was the Senate or the House) called in Big Bird and a few other prominent muppets to testify and that was that. It led every newscast and made the GOP look like a**holes. Pretty sweet deal: five seconds of Big Bird on Capitol Hill was enough to secure billions of dollars in appropriations for the next 15 years. (Ace is right that Republicans shouldn't even bother trying to eliminate PBS until they can explain what they will do about Sesame Street).

A similar dynamic played out during the 1995 government shutdown. Among other things, the shutdown temporarily closed a "once in a lifetime" Vermeer exhibit at the Smithsonian. There were a lot of issues involved in the shut down show down, including the clash of personalities between "rock star" Bill Clinton and "big jerk" Newt Gingrich (that's how it played out in the media, at least), but still that Vermeer exhibit sure did get a lot of press at the time. And the end result was the GOP "lost" the government shut down fight, and the limited government cause suffered as a result. You could almost draw a line from Big Bird and those damned Vermeers straight through the big spending DeLay Congress, TARP, and Obamacare.

OK, I kid a little, but not much. The easiest thing in the world is for conservatives to start fantasizing about what government programs to cut. The only thing easier is for liberals to demagogue those cuts as being directed at Sesame Street (i.e. The Children), and liberals win this one every time. NPR is filled with pompous twits who I'd love to see try to survive in the free market, but taking away their clubhouse would not be worth the inevitable loss of political capital that would entail. We want to get rid of Obamacare, ethanol subsidies, a half dozen cabinet departments and a thousand other things, yet it will be very easy for all of these to hide behind the skirts of Ira Glass and Big Bird if the GOP gets distracted by a high profile fight over public broadcasting of a sort that it is doomed to lose.

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