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Sell It To Me

March 22, 2011

If you’re just joining us, last time I took a look at a petition to secure permanent funding for NPR and PBS from Congress. Ostensibly about HB 1076, a House bill which would cut federal funding to NPR, the petition used provocative language and omitted a few key facts of the debate in its quest to get signatures. That’s about what you’d expect from a petition with the clear agenda of getting people to sign, but being the nitpicking, analytical freak I am, I took it apart piece by piece anyway. By the end, I managed to work my way around to the bill itself, which, as it turns out, should not have a significant effect on either the budget deficit or the survival of NPR. Therefore the remaining arenas of debate are the political one and the ideological one.

As I said last time, the political arena boils down to party politics. The Republicans presumably think that NPR is liberal and want to shut it down, while the Democrats think that either NPR is liberal and want to keep it or that it’s politically neutral and believe it should exist. As actually confirming that these beliefs are driving action on either side of the issue requires an out-and-out admission from one side or the other (and even then that doesn’t say how prevalent the motivation is), the argument is hard to verify and produces little in the way of meaningful debate. The Republicans will try to shut down NPR funding if they can, and the Democrats will try to defend NPR funding if they can, and as long as we’re assuming purely political motivations, that’s all there is to it.

There is one other arena where the two sides split, however, and that’s the only place where we can find meaningful debate. The debate we find here is purely ideological: the question of whether NPR should be funded by the federal government purely as a matter of principle. Here party names don’t matter, only interpretations of the nature of government itself. I’m hesitant to even use the labels “conservative” and “liberal,” just because I don’t want to misrepresent either group. (For some reason checking a box saying “Democrat” and “Republican” doesn’t trigger the same hesitancy from me. I guess I’m making the assumption that a self-labeled conservative, liberal, libertarian, etc. will have at least a semi-consistent philosophy to argue from or against, while a Republican or Democrat requires far less justification to choose his or her party.) I’ll give it a shot anyway, and you can chew me out in the comments if I’m grossly misrepresenting anybody with my terminology or analysis.

I’ll break here to revise what I said last time. In the course of doing a bit more research for this post, I found more information regarding the potentially hidden impacts I mentioned in passing. A post on NPR itself, points out that NPR station fees make up 40% of revenue, and that stations would be unable to use federal funds for these payments. Multiplying 40% by $164 million, we get the up to $60 million savings claim made by the Republicans, at least by the numbers. Of course, as with the funding grants, it could be the case that the funding is simply put to another use and not actually saved as claimed. It depends heavily on the nature of the funding, but my gut says that transferred, rather than cut, funding will be the case.

Alright, so it looks like the cost debate might not be moot, depending on the details of the funding in question. The first issue is how much of that 40% of revenue from local stations is provided by federal funding. If we take a look at NPR’s pie chart breaking down the revenue of its member stations by source, we get 5.8% supplied by federal, state, and local government funding, 9.6% supplied by “foundations,” and 10.1% supplied by the CPB. If we assume no funding in the “other” category (representing 7.6% of total revenue) comes from the federal government, entirely federal funding for the 5.8% of funding that comes from various governments, and only federally-funded foundations in the “foundation” category (probably a generous assumption, but I’m unsure how to break the category down further), we get a total of 25.5% of funding from local stations barred from use in paying fees to NPR. If we assume that this funding is taken directly away from NPR, we get a further loss of 25.5% * 40% = 10.2% of funding for a total maximum of around 12% of funding lost by NPR, ignoring any second-order effects.

So even in a worst-case scenario, NPR loses a bit over a tenth of its funding, but depending on the nature of the local funding, this loss could be much less. If local stations can simply shift their federal funding to other expenses and their private funding to paying NPR, there is next to no impact beyond the 2% loss NPR feels directly. The books get shuffled, some small portion of funding is lost to the friction, and things return to normal with a little bit more creative bookkeeping involved. A hassle to NPR’s member stations, but not a death knell for the organization as a whole. If some of the funds have been granted for a specific purpose or are tied up somehow for a given use, then NPR will lose some fraction of its funding, up to the 12% mentioned above. I can picture a situation where federal funding to these stations comes with proscriptions as to how it can be used, and in these cases it might not be possible to shift the funding to another use. Without knowing the details of this type of funding, however, I can’t say whether NPR would lose closer to 2% or 12%.

(For anyone who’s interested, in my digging I turned up NPR’s annual donor reports (see the bottom of the page), which list the names of the people and organizations who either sponsored or donated to NPR, barring donations under $5000, as well as the board of trustees and providers of grants. Anyone looking for a bias or lack thereof among NPR’s sponsors, donors, or trustees might want to start with the 2008 report, which is the most recent one available at this time. If anyone’s feeling really industrious, they could also track down any funding data that’s available for NPR’s local stations and see how much of their revenue comes in the form of federal funding and with what constraints. Note that this would take a lot of effort, produce incomplete results, and pertain to a bill that probably won’t make it out of the Senate, but it’s your life.)

As for how much money could be saved, assuming that all “foundation” money that goes to NPR’s local stations is federal, that state and local governments contribute nothing, and that none of these federal funds can be moved around to avoid their complete loss, we still run into a maximum of $20 million saved. Of course, that’s assuming that the money granted by these federally-funded organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting doesn’t simply go elsewhere when it can no longer be given directly or indirectly to NPR. Again, I’m going on a hunch here, and it’s a pretty strong one, but I doubt that much of that funding, if any, will be truly saved. So regarding the claim of $60 million, if Reuters got it right and I’m not taking the claim out of context:

Well, I seem to have wandered pretty far from my initial topic in the course of expanding on my research. Hopefully it was a worthwhile clarification (and make of it what you will), but let’s get back to the ideological arena. The main issue to debate here is whether federal funding of NPR is justifiable and necessary. The reason I start with this is because, being a conservative and a libertarian, I am wary of the size of federal government. As a check on the size of the federal government and to keep it from overreaching its intended purpose, we have Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, enumerating the powers of the federal government. I won’t bore you with the point-by-point, but believe me when I say there’s nothing in there that could be remotely interpreted as allowing the government to create and fund a part of the media. Combine this with the Tenth Amendment, which explicitly states that all powers not granted to the federal government are granted to the state governments or to the people, and you have a bare bones argument as to why the federal government does not have the power to fund NPR. Granted, it’s one overstepping of the federal government’s power out of thousands, but in terms of principle, this is very clearly the reason why it’s not the government’s business to fund NPR.

People have presumably argued that this is not the case on the grounds of changing times or judicial interpretation or the thousands of other similar violations. These arguments all require one very important concession in order to function: that the Constitution, as written, is defunct. If you deny something clearly outlined in the Constitution, no matter how many hops, skips, and jumps of interpretation and precedent you use to arrive at your conclusion, you deny that the Constitution, as written, has any meaning or bearing on the United States government. All the rights and protections that it offers become political whim, to be done away with as desired by whichever party is in power. The only way in which the Constitution acts as protection is if it is applied consistently and by examining its actual content. Treating it as a grab bag of “rights” to be turned into talking points or ignored as the political winds change will—mark my words—come back to bite those who support it. We’ve seen this already in a case libertarian bloggers love to point out, with the Homeland Security measures once supported by the Republicans that have suddenly become onerous violations of rights when extended when the opposing party is in power. So if you argue by n-times-removed interpretation or precedent, be aware of the type of state you are putting into place, because the same principles that keep the government from funding NPR keep it from doing a host of other things you might be far less happy with.

To dive back into the practical once again, I have taken a look at the Republicans’ sole “present” vote, as mentioned in the NPR article above. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan refused to vote for HR 1076 for reasons listed here. He argues that the bill violates Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which prohibits bills of attainder, or laws targeting a specific private entity, by singling out NPR in everything but name. This seems like a reasonable argument, and his justification of his decision makes it very clear that his goal is to uphold the Constitution even in situations where it would be politically advantageous not to. Also note that he confirms my analysis that the bill will not save money, only prevent certain of its uses, and with none of the guesswork that was involved in my conclusion. If you ever need proof of why I’m not a Republican, this is it: too much politics. The $60 million estimate, if it was truly made, was a stretch of a stretch of a stretch.

It’s also interesting to note that Rep. Amash points to HR 1 as an example of how to properly go about defunding NPR: by defunding the CPB, which is empowered to grant federal funds for public broadcasting. I took a look; HR 1 (other versions here) seems to be the House appropriations bill, starting off with Department of Defense spending. But sure enough, in section 1838 (at the bottom of page 302 in the linked copy), there is language that removes funding from the CPB. Also note that this does put PBS on the chopping block, to whatever extent its funding comes from the CPB. It seems that Move On’s petition, if not their summary, was addressing the right threat after all.

Thinking about it more, I think I agree with Rep. Amash. NPR should be defunded on the grounds that there is no justification (that I have yet heard) for its existence as a part of the federal government. I have no opposition to the existence of NPR as a private entity, and if it is as privately-funded as it claims and seems to be, the transition would not be too difficult. I refuse any argument discussing solely the benefits of its existence, however, for the dual reasons that it could just as easily exist as a private entity and that its creation and funding are still not allowed by the Constitution.

Anyway, thanks for staying with me through this pair of rambling posts. I’m new to blogging, and I’m learning as I go. Being concise would be a valuable skill to learn, but learning how to perform deeper research (compared to my usual standards) has been just as important. The next step in this debate would be to try to dig up the actual debates in the House over the CPB portion of the appropriations bill, if they’re available, and look at the arguments used. If they’re largely political, then they’ll mostly be worthless (”to spite my political enemies,” for example, is never sufficient justification for an actual law), but if there are other analyses as thoughtful as Amash’s, then the proceedings could shed better light on the debate.

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