Make the Budget Process Fair: NPR and the Wisconsin Protests


News of the House’s budget proposal to cut funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), put simply, was rather disconcerting. What I find so worrisome about this proposal is that the CPB provides a non-trivial amount of funding for National Public Radio (NPR), an important source of quality news for people around the country. To use myself as an example, from the beginning of my day to the end I listen to NPR programming. Morning Edition, the Brian Lehrer Show, the Leonard Lopate Show, Sound Check, Fresh Air with Terri Gross, All Things Considered, On Point with Tom Ashbrook. These are a just some of the truly unrivaled programs that NPR offers every day. And that’s not including the weekend programming.

I listen to NPR because in an era where it is increasingly difficult to find news sources that you can trust, NPR emerges as an exception to this trend. The news reporting is articulate, in-depth, intelligent, and despite many objections, fair. Many will argue that NPR is a left-leaning news organization, and it may very well be. But you know what, if calling NPR left-leaning because you’re more likely than not to hear a story about the cultural mores imbued by the civil rights movement in Birmingham AL, then sure, it’s left-leaning all the way. All that said, when I listen to how issues are reported and discussed on NPR, the coverage is done in a responsible manner and in the great majority of cases, I feel like I am hearing both sides of the debate.

The plan to slash funding for the CPB is emblematic of a budget environment that has become so intensely partisan that the process is losing legitimacy. The funding amount that the proposal seeks to do away with is literally a drop in the bucket of the budget, which prompts the question why it needs to be cut in the first place. Most are aware that the largest budget burdens we face come from the nation’s entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — which are projected to be a growing percentage of GDP in the future.

The real question is why cut funding for an organization that is helping to do ostensibly good and importantwork. The answer: there’s no reason. It’s a smokescreen, political posturing by the Republican-dominated House. The mere perception of the CPB as a liberal funding institution makes it well worth putting on the chopping block. But you know what, that’s not responsible. It’s reckless and cheap because it masquerades as responding to some “mandate” from voters to lead the country in a different direction when in reality it’s merely a short-term gratification until people look up and say, “Hey, what happened to all those good programs that National Public Radio used to offer.” And there you have it.

In his recent op-ed “Make Everybody Hurt,” David Brooks looks at the Wisconsin protests and makes the important point that what is crucial in any austerity process is that all groups should feel the pain from the cuts. When the process veers off this path of evenness and places a disproportionate amount of the budget cutting pain largely on one group, then the process quickly loses legitimacy. This is precisely how the public workers in Wisconsin feel.

There is no mistaking that the Republican-elected governor in Wisconsin is aiming his budget ax at the issue of collective bargaining for public sector workers because of its deeply partisan nature. While you can come down on either side on the issue of whether public workers should be able to collectively bargain, to completely reverse decades of precedent to cover a budget shortfall is not right. It reeks of an elected official trying to fulfill a “mandate” from voters. This is irresponsible legislating because it undermines the trust we implicitly place in the hands of our elected officials to do what’s best for the people before what’s best for their party.

Austerity is not fun and it’s never easy. Cutting funding for the things we care about has a tendency to put us on the defensive. It creates an environment where we quickly forget that austerity is more about collective sacrifice and less about self-interested preservation. However, responsible governance of the budget process that is fair and transparent has the ability to temper this atmosphere of uncertainty and self-concern. When the pain of the cuts is spread around as evenly as possible, the feeling that the sacrifice is collective becomes more palpable. When the cuts make sense, then the process is being influenced more by pragmatism than by politics.

The CPB and NPR are important organizations for the quality of the content that they produce every day. Funding for them should never be cut simply because they are stamped as liberal. Furthermore, to prohibit public workers from collective bargaining for largely political reasons is shameful and should be viewed as an example of how not to govern in dire times such as these.