A Day of Debate Over NPR Funding

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The House voted 228-192 to defund NPR this afternoon. A few Republicans sided with the Democrats, but they weren’t enough to topple the GOP in the final tally. The Republican triumph is symbolic, given that the Democrat-controlled Senate is highly unlikely to follow suit. But the issue seemed anything but an empty gesture as members debated the measure leading up to the vote.

The Republican argument essentially boiled down to this: NPR funding is an example of unnecessary federal spending, and the organization should stand on its own. The Democratic argument was that it’s not really about money, that the GOP is really just exploiting NPR’s unflattering headlines to attack an organization against which it has an ancient grudge. If there were a playbill, the caricatures, as describe by the opposing party, would read thus:

Democrats: financial nincompoops bent on forcing Americans to consume liberal news and pay tax dollars for the privilege, whether they like it or not

Republicans: culture-hating sneaksters trying to gut NPR with whatever means possible, unable to see what they’re destroying through ideological blinders

Needless to say, these lines of argument — taken up in a much more tempered manner by some — didn’t bring out the best in everyone. Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner gave his two cents in the form of a childish (if entertaining), satirical thank you to the Republican party for fast-tracking this bill to get to the country’s greatest threat, international or domestic: Click and Clack. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who was leading the GOP side of the debate, meanwhile demonized NPR listeners for being educated and wealthy, saying people like that could fund their radio for themselves.

Presentation aside, the money justification has some weak points. The amount of funding NPR gets is a tiny fraction of a percent of the federal budget — and Democratic members repeatedly referred to the CBO determining that the bill, H.R. 1076, would have zero impact on the deficit. (No publication has been made public by the CBO, but they’ll sometimes communicate figures directly to the budget committee, which is then responsible for making sure members aren’t espousing nonsense on the floor.) But the Republicans treated it as a meaningful, if only representative, bit of belt-tightening all the same.

In terms of direct funding to NPR, the bill doesn’t mean much. NPR only gets about 2% of its revenue from the federal government. But there is another provision in the bill that prevents the hundreds of public stations that purchase NPR programming from doing so with federal dollars. Those member-station fees account for about 40% of NPR’s revenue, and a larger percentage of their funding comes through government channels, like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (You can see a full breakdown of their finances here.)

Beyond the figures, the real driving forces behind the vote seemed to be the public relations-mishaps NPR has endured in recent months — the firings, the mispeakings and the O’Keefe-ing — that have all made the entity look at worst ungrateful and biased, at best haphazard. The vote, if it comes to mean nothing else, will be proof of how quickly bad publicity can manifest into legislation.