Why House Republicans are rushing to slash NPR funding

House Republican cohesiveness splintered in a key vote earlier this week, but NPR funding – long a target for conservatives – is almost certain to restore a picture of GOP unity.

Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon speaks at an event at the US Capitol supporting federal funding for NPR and PBS Tuesday. The House is scheduled to vote on NPR funding Thursday.

House GOP leaders are rushing a vote to ban all federal funding for NPR in an effort to reforge party unity a day after it splintered badly.

Fifty-four conservatives defected Tuesday to vote against a spending bill that would forestall a government shutdown for three weeks that they felt didn't go far enough to cut spending. But there is little chance of House Republican leaders losing votes in its bid to kill funding for NPR – the third such vote in weeks. The issue has been a rallying point among conservatives for decades.

Earlier this month, conservative activists released a video purporting to show NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller calling tea partyers "seriously racist" and saying that despite potential damage to smaller stations, "Frankly, it is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding." In the subsequent outcry, Mr. Schiller left NPR and the organization's president, Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned. (The full video, subsequently released, shows that Mr. Schiller's comments were selectively edited.)

The scandal may have changed no votes, but it certainly intensified partisan attacks on NPR (formerly known as National Public Radio).

“Public broadcasting has been a target for conservatives for a long time,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

A united front

The bill's pell-mell rush to the floor ignores several promises made to party members and the GOP base, including the freedom to attach amendments and 72 hours to review a spending bill before voting. These moves suggest Republican leadership feels an urgent need to show cohesiveness.

“The emergency is that Republicans are starting to break apart. Before they go home [Friday], leadership is trying to find votes to show that Republicans are on the same team and committed to conservative values,” Professor Zelizer says.

In response, conservatives say that they are targeting NPR as a move toward fiscal discipline, not for ideological reasons.

Meeting in emergency session, the House Rules Committee voted on party lines to send the bill to the floor with no possibility of amendment. “It’s very clear exactly what this bill does,” said Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, who chairs the panel. “You either agree or you disagree.”

By eliminating the possibility of amendments, party leadership limits debate and ensures a straight up-or-down vote.

Democrats on the panel objected to a “rush to judgment” on NPR, especially after a failure to hold hearings on the justification and consequences of the ban. “This is a dangerous road we’re going down,” said Rep. James McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, a member of the Rules Committee. “This has become an ideological battle to the Republican Party. Going down this road will have a chilling impact on news organizations.”

To make the point, Congressman McGovern proposed banning federal advertising dollars from being spent on the Fox News network. “If you’re saying we should defund NPR because some people might not agree with the programming, what’s wrong with the idea that I don’t want my tax dollars to go to advertising on stations I don’t agree with?” he added. His proposal failed.

Third whack at public broadcasting

Thursday’s vote will mark the third whack at public broadcasting by the new Republican majority in just under a month. On Tuesday, the House voted to cut funding for NPR’s parent company, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), in a three-week stopgap bill for fiscal year 2011. Last month, the House voted to zero out all funding for CPB for FY 2013, as part of a spending bill to fund government through Oct. 1, but the measure failed in the Senate.

Sponsors of these efforts say NPR and the CPB face cuts because with a $1.65 trillion deficit projected for FY 2011, the government needs to cut spending.

“This is an exciting and significant step forward in the ongoing effort to protect taxpayer dollars from supporting programs that are fully capable of standing on their own,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R) of Colorado, when he introduced the bill on March 15.

He tried to accomplish something similar in November 2010, after the controversial firing of NPR commentator Juan Williams. But Democratic leaders then controlling the House did not let it come to a vote.

With Democrats controlling the Senate, there’s little chance that such a ban on NPR funding will ever get a Senate floor vote, let alone pass. But even without a vote, the issue gives both parties a platform for rallying the base.

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