Less than a month after I wrote that "you're not likely to hear [Republicans] call for taking public broadcasters off the public tit," a House subcommittee voted to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's budget by 25% and to eliminate the rest over the next few years. That's a much bigger reduction than the White House had asked for, and the idea of zeroing out federal support hasn't been a live issue in Washington for a decade.
Before you get too excited, this looks more like a hardball maneuver than anything else, and there will be plenty of opportunities to put the brakes on the plan before it becomes law. Having argued that the GOP would rather control public broadcasting than defund it, I'm still standing by that statement. Patricia Harrison, the leading candidate to succeed Ken Tomlinson as head of the CPB, is a former chair of the Republican Party. Her partisan past prompted a protest Tuesday from the Association of Public Television Stations. Two days later the subcommittee voted to cut their funding. The implied message: "Get back in line."
The best-case scenario: Everyone tries to call everyone else's bluff. The broadcasters keep fighting back. The Republicans decide that if they can't control the system, they really will defund it. The broadcasters decide that if they can't rely on Congress, they'll push for an independent trust fund instead. The CPB as we know it, a federally funded body that doubles as a tool for political interference, disappears.
The more likely scenario: The broadcasters most vulnerable to cuts decide they'd rather compromise than fight, and a good cop -- probably Senate Republicans -- offers them a deal they can live with. It will look remarkably like the modest cuts the White House originally asked for, and while it may or may not involve Harrison becoming CPB chief, whoever does get elevated will have essentially the same loyalties.
One thing's for sure. Get ready for a lot of talk about how some children's shows that make a mint off of merchandising -- and a radio network that recently received a $200 million endowment -- just couldn't survive without public subsidies.