Recision of Appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting


Mr. Chairman, members of the subcommittee, good afternoon. I'mSheldon Richman, senior editor at the Cato Institute. I am heretoday to urge federal defunding of the Corporation for PublicBroadcasting. Many complaints have been lodged against theCorporation. It's been said that a preponderance of the publicaffairs programming it supports is little more than propaganda forbig government and the welfare state. It's been called pork barrelfor the rich because most of the programs cater to the wealthierand better educated. And it's been said that government subsidiescorrupt its recipients who dare not venture into areas that areunlikely to win the favor of the grant givers.

Those are all valid points. But they do not constitute thefundamental objection to government support for the Corporation forPublic Broadcasting. Let me note here that the term "publicbroadcasting" is a euphemism that hides an important fact. Inactuality, all broadcasting is public: it is produced by members ofthe public, paid for by members of the public, and consumed bymembers of the public. What is misleadingly called "publicbroadcasting" is actually coercive, tax-funded broadcasting. Evenif all the programming supported was unobjectionable, there wouldremain an incontrovertible case against CPB, namely, that subsidiesto broadcasting fall outside the proper scope of government and, inparticular, the enumerated powers delegated to the federalgovernment by the U.S. Constitution. In other words, theappropriation of money to the Corporation is flagrantlyunconstitutional.

Determining the constitutionality of any given government act isnot solely a matter for the Supreme Court. Every member of Congresstakes an oath to uphold the Constitution. That oath has a veryspecific meaning. It obligates every member of Congress to askbefore every vote on every bill, "Did the Constitution delegate tothe national government the power embodied in this legislation?" Ifthe answer is no, it should be rejected.

This approach to legislation was the one used by all threebranches of the federal government for more than one hundred yearsafter the founding of the Republic. Much well-intended legislationwas defeated after it was pointed out that the implied power wasnowhere to be found in the Constitution. For example, in 1794 JamesMadison opposed an appropriation of relief funds because, as he putit, he couldn't "lay [his] finger on that article of the FederalConstitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, onobjects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." Thatapproach was not a mere custom to be outgrown. It is logicallyentailed in the very idea of a constitution. The primary purpose ofthat document was to define, circumscribe, and limit the powers ofthe national government. Had that not been the purpose, there wouldhave been no need for the Constitution beyond setting up thebranches. But the document did not merely establish the branches.It said what each of those branches could do. And that meant therewere things they could not do. The idea of limited government isintrinsic to the Constitution. There is no way to get around thatfact.

According to the federal budget, the Congress provides taxpayermoney to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting so that it maygive grants to "qualified public television and radio stations tobe used at their discretion for purposes related primarily toprogram production and acquisition." It also "supports theproduction and acquisition of radio and television programs fornational distribution [and] assists in the financing of severalsystem-wide activities, including national satelliteinterconnection services." No one can reasonably oppose theobjective sought by the creation and funding of the Corporation:the support of broadcasting. But the desirability of the objectiveof legislation is not the test imposed on the Congress by theConstitution. The test is much tougher. That test is: Where inArticle I is the Congress empowered to transfer money from the onegroup of citizens to another for the purpose of supportingbroadcasting? In the days of the Founding Fathers, there was ofcourse no broadcasting; but there were newspapers, theater, andother forms of entertainment. And yet, the framers did notauthorize the national government to subsidize those things becausein their view it would have been outside the scope of a properlylimited government. That is how you should view the appropriationfor the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Why did the framers see support for newspapers and entertainmentas outside the proper scope? The most obvious reason is that theybelieved that government existed to protect the people's rights andto maintain the peace. It should, as Jefferson put it, "restrainmen from injuring one another [but] leave them otherwise free toregulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement." GeorgeWashington provided the reason for this decision to limit the powerof the state. "Government," he said, "is not reason, it is noteloquence, it is force; like fire, it is a troublesome servant anda fearful master."

That fact ought to provide sufficient incentive to contain thepower of government. But Jefferson issued an admonition thatdirectly addresses the matter we are discussing today. In theVirginia Statute of Religious Liberty, he wrote, "To compel a manto furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinionswhich he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical."

Jefferson was referring to the establishment of a state churchand the taxing of citizens to support it. But his wisdom appliesperfectly well to subsidies to broadcasting. Virtually everythingthat is broadcast on National Public Radio and the PublicBroadcasting Service involves someone's opinion. Not everything canbe broadcast. Someone makes a selection among all the things thatcould be put on the air. Ideology is part of that selectionprocess. Often the selections are controversial. How a news storyis played on "All Things Considered" or the "MacNeil-LehrerNewsHour" is inherently controversial. How the war on poverty isportrayed in a documentary--to take a timely example--is by naturedisputatious. There will never be universal agreement on thosematters. Thus, some portion of the American citizenry will, to useJefferson's words, be "compel[led] to furnish contributions ofmoney for the propagation of opinions which [it] disbelieves." Thatis not fair. Moreover, it violates the First Amendment'sprohibition on abridging freedom of speech. Freedom of speech mustinclude the freedom not to speak, and that freedom logicallyentails the freedom to abstain from subsidizing the speech ofothers. The Supreme Court agrees that forcing someone to speakviolates the First Amendment. The Congress itself should understandthat forcing someone to subsidize someone else's speech likewiseruns afoul of the Constitution.

But I would like to emphasize that one need not resort to theBill of Rights to invalidate federal aid to broadcasting. One mustmerely note that there is no such power delegated to the nationalgovernment. Now I realize that this form of constitutionalreasoning is not in fashion just now. The other day I was on aradio program with a member of the Senate. In response to my claimthat the Constitution does not authorize such subsidies, heresponded that the Congress has what he called "broad discretion"in defining the public good. He is surely right that the courtshave granted the Congress that discretion. The problem is that thecourts do not have the power to do so under the Constitution andhave abdicated their constitutional responsibilities. To grantCongress broad discretion to define and carry out the public goodis to allow it to define its own powers. And to do that is tovitiate the Constitution. A constitutional republic in which thegovernment defines its own powers is a contradiction in terms.

Finally, let me say a word about elitism. Federal aid to theCorporation for Public Broadcasting is elitism two times over.First, it is elitist because a politically selected few tell therest of us that we must spend a portion of our earnings on thetelevision and radio programming of their choosing. They presume toknow better than we do how to allocate our entertainment spending.That's elitism. Second, the subsidies are also elitist because thevast working class is forced to pay for the entertainment of theupper class. Most of the tax-supported programming has apredominantly upper-income and better educated audience. Despitethe claims that the subsidies are intended to bring the finest inbroadcasting to the masses, the fact remains that the middle classpays and the upper crust consumes. Subsidies from working class torich are not something you'd want to defend openly. Yet that's whatthe Corporation for Public Broadcasting accomplishes. RobertCoonrod, the executive vice president of CPB, defends hisorganization by saying that "about 90 percent of the federalappropriation goes back to the communities, to public radio and TVstations, which are essentially community institutions." Only 90percent? Why not leave 100 percent in the communities and let theresidents decide how to spend it? Since only 14 percent of CPBrevenues come from the federal government, other sources would takeup the slack if the federal government ended the appropriation.

For all these reasons, you should cut off the flow of tax moneyto the Corporation and related entities.

Thank you for this opportunity to come before you today. I'd behappy to answer any questions.

Sheldon L. Richman

Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources
Committee on Resources
United States House of Representatives