In 1995, at the end of the summer after graduating from college, I interviewed for a job on Capitol Hill. At the start of the interview, I asked the freshman member of Congress (a conservative Republican) a silly question: Had he meant, when he’d called for eliminating the NEA, the National Endowment for the Arts, or the National Education Association?
“Both,” he replied.
How quaint and how blissfully optimistic it now seems for a new congressman and a young conservative to believe that it was possible to cut government down to size. How naive for me and so many others to think the Republican Party was sincere in its promise to return to limited government.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 was extraordinary, calling for a 31 percent cut to the EPA, a 29 percent cut to the State Department, a 20 percent cut to both the Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture, and the elimination of funding for scores of things the federal government should never have been funding—many of them things Republicans have been promising to cut for more than 20 years, like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But Republicans in Congress last week ignored the president, allowing only modest spending cuts to agencies, and, unbelievably, refusing to cut defund the CPB, the NEA, and the NEH. This is infuriating and bewildering for those of us who have listened to Republicans complain about NPR for the last 20 years. The GOP even refused to accept the White House’s assertion that it needed an increase of only $52 billion for the Department of Defense, insisting on giving it many billions more.
You would think the road to ending taxpayer funding of at least the CPB had been paved, what with several top NPR staffers accused of sexual harassment in just the last few months, including the chief news editor, David Sweeney, who was shown the door in November, and Michael Oreskes, the senior vice president of news and editorial director, who was forced out after his long career as a sexual harasser was exposed. And who could forget Charlie Rose, whose young female assistants were summoned to his beach house where he answered the door in a bathrobe?
Then there was the 2011 Project Veritas video that showed NPR’s senior VP for fundraising, Ron Schiller, calling Tea Party conservatives “scary” and “seriously racist,” and telling men affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that NPR would be “better off in the long run without federal funding.”
But most of all there is the clear, consistent, and truly unbelievable partisan nature of public radio and television. When playwright David Mamet talked a few years ago about wanting to punch the car radio every time NPR was on, half of America knew exactly what he was talking about. It’s almost impossible to listen for any length of time without hearing Christians bashed, gun rights mocked, and conservatives misrepresented.
So why wasn’t it cut?
People in Washington explain to me that the problem is that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to pass appropriations bills. Yes, yes. But Democrats refuse to support them anyway, so why not go for broke? Why not throw down the gauntlet and say, “That’s it, we’re not paying for this anymore no matter how much you yell and scream?”
I called the office of Congressman Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, whose Appropriations subcommittee decided to keep funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and was pawned off on the communications director, who I was told is not available. I left a message, but she didn’t call back. I emailed her, but she did not respond. I called the House Appropriations Committee and got the same treatment.
It has to be said that journalism bears some blame. When was the last time a reporter asked Speaker Paul Ryan at a press conference why he’s going along with a thousand wasteful expenditures? Where was Fox News last summer when the appropriations bills were marked up in committee? Why weren’t they badgering Republican offices to find out why the president’s request for “bold changes” were being ignored?
On the ranking of agencies and programs most reviled by conservatives, just behind the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Trump axed federal funding to both entities in his budget proposal, yet the Republican appropriators completely ignored this and funded them anyway.
Does anyone honestly think there would be less art in America without the NEA? Does anyone think there would be fewer artists? What business does the government have deciding what is art?
The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were each funded to the tune of about $150 million annually by Republicans in Congress this year. That’s a drop in the bucket for Washington, but I knew an old woman living on the streets in South Florida. When I tried to find a place where she could lay her head at night a couple years ago, I was told repeatedly, including by government agencies, that there was no housing and no money for housing and no money to help find housing. Not one dollar. She’s still out there, I believe, if she hasn’t died from exposure to the elements. So you’ll forgive me if I see government’s spending priorities as a bit skewed.
Trump’s budget had also eliminated funding for the U.S. Institute of Peace, the East-West Center, The Asia Foundation, the Inter-America Foundation, the African Development Foundation, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Green Climate Fund.
In open defiance of the president—and with the country $20 trillion in debt—the Appropriations subcommittee, led by Congressman Hal Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, kept money for most of these, including the U.S. Institute of Peace, a private organization that gets $38 million a year from our government and that was described in a 2012 American Conservative article by J. Arthur Bloom as a “retirement home for aging foreign service officers who want to stay in the game.”
Rogers and his fellow subcommittee members also declined to cut funding for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group founded after World War II to administer the Marshall Plan. In addition to $70 million in annual fees and membership dues, U.S. taxpayers pay for hundreds of federal employees to fly to Paris twice a year for meetings at the organization’s headquarters in a chateau built by Henri James de Rothschild.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a wealthy Mexican named Angel Gurria, told Al Jazeera in an interview that he thought Donald Trump was a racist, and his deputy, an American named Doug Frantz, compared Trump’s campaign to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.
The Republican Study Group, made up of 70 House conservatives, had called for OECD funding to be eliminated. They were ignored.
But it was on defense spending that the Republican Congress fell hardest. Trump’s budget had called for a 4.5 percent increase in defense funding, which amounted to $54 billion more than in 2017. It was the amount the Pentagon said it wanted. But Republicans in Congress insisted it take billions more—about 50 percent more.
If you go back and watch the hearings on the defense budget last year, you see Democrats meekly protesting, pointing out that the president never amended his budget request, and that the long-promised audit of the Pentagon still has not happened, despite the fact that government inspectors find hundreds of millions of dollars unaccounted for in Pentagon budgets whenever they check. You see the acting undersecretary of defense and Pentagon CFO insisting to Congress that $54 billion “is not chump change.”
But Republicans would not be swayed, and last week they got what they wanted: a massive $165 billion hike for the military over two years.
The media claimed that “defense hawks” had won, but that wasn’t really it at all. It was more that Lockheed Martin had won, Raytheon had won, Boeing had won, General Dynamics had won, Northrup Grumman had won, United Technologies had won, BAE Systems had won, and the massive Pentagon bureaucracy had won.
An old friend, a retired senior staffer at the Pentagon, said in an email that she saw so much waste at DOD that it blew her mind. “Do they really need their own mini-State Dept?” she asked. “1500 people in the policy shop!! They travel and write memos…”
What hope has Trump of ever reining it in? What hope is there for conservatism now that it’s given up on the one thing that supposedly held it together?
Margaret Menge has worked as a journalist for the last 14 years, including for the Miami Herald Company, UPI, and LifeZette. She has also been published in the Columbia Journalism Review, New York Observer, Civil War Book Review, and on Breitbart.com. She previously worked in Republican politics.