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Where Are We?

It was unclear at press time how secure the future of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was after the release of the final report from what, for lack of a better term, I will call the President’s Council on Fiscal Fitness.It is actually called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, but I like mine better.

The President created the bipartisan commission, made up primarily of former and current legislators, to identify ways to improve the nation’s fiscal health by making touch decisions that would put the country on a stricter spending diet.

The commission raised red flags with noncoms near and far when its co-chairs released a draft report of recommendations for budget cuts last month. There were lots of them, and they were tough, including phasing out funding for noncommercial radio and TV. Federal funding is administered through  CPB, which Congress imposed and could dispose of if it chose (say that three times fast).

Axing CBP came in a draft of what the co-chairs called $200 billion woth of “illustrative ” discretionary spending cuts. The final report also referenced those $200 billion in discretionary cuts, but asa list of those cutit said was being issued with the report.

Not trace of a new list, if there is one, could be found on the commission’s web site, and trying to get in contact with the commission proved as tough as trying to cut an Alaskan earmark. Repeated calls to a commission number provided by the White House went unreturned as did e-mails to a press address on the Web site. Of course, the commission may have closed its doors the minute the Dec. 1 deadline for the final report was met so that it would not continue to be spending some of that precious goverment money it was trying to save. Or staffers may have simply taken some time off after the push toward the deadline.

It is unclear whether cutting noncom funding remains on a list of illustrative cuts. Certainly the spokesfolk I talked to at NPR and CPB had no clearer handle on just what had and hadn’t come down.

The report issued Dec. 1, billed as the final report says: “To meet the discretionary spending caps we recommend, Congress will have to make toughchoices. The list of illustrative savings options accompanying this report includes $200 billion in potential savings in security and non-securitydiscretionary spending. This list includes more than enough specific savings options to meet our proposed caps. Although not every option issupported by every Commissioner, this list is included to illustrate a realistic, feasible path Congress could take to rein in discretionaryspending.”

But as I may have mentioned, there was no list other than the draft list issued last month that included eliminating CPB funding to save a tad under $500 million. Other recommendations included reducing funding to the Smithsonian and National Parks, selling excess federal property, freezing federal salaries, and cutting the federal work force by 10% including noncombat military pay. Some of those specific cuts made it into the final report, but many others did not, which increased the confusion about whether the original list of $200 billion in cuts had been mofidifed.

My guess is that rather than pare down that draft list and come up with a final one that had the support of most of the commission members (the final report needed a more-than-two-thirds majority [14 of 18 members] for approval), the commission simply let the draft $200 billion list stand as the illustration of what it was talking about, but not necessarily what it specifically reported. Such grey areas are the bread and butter of commissions, which are just big committees, and we know how often stuff gets unequivocally  executive by committees, unless they are firing squads.

The new report did containt a directive to create a new “bipartisan Cut-and-Invest Committee” which is supposed to identify the $200 billion indiscretionary cuts. That sounds like there remains discretion about what discretionary cuts to make. There was also some talk of a $172 million figure in the draft discretionary cuts list, which suggested to CPB that there might be yet more wiggle room in the list, according to a source there.

Of course, these are all just recommendations and would have to be approved by a vote in Congress, which given the current split may be like like pulling hens teeth anyway (mixed simile intended).

As far as congressional will for cutting back or phasing out noncom funding, there are Republican rumblings in that direction already, particularly after the Juan Williams firing by NPR. But there are always Republican rumlbings about what many see as a government-funded platform for liberals and Big Bird has continued to fly (I guess he doesn’t fly; make that “lumber”) after numerous pot shots from the right. In additoin, the Senate is still under Democratic control including the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee.

That committee is headed by Jay Rockefeller, who knows a little something about the value of public TV. His wife, Sharon, runs WETA Washington, one of the flagships of the noncom TV fleet.