Political Animal


October 09, 2012 4:58 PM Waste, Fraud, Abuse and Big Bird

By Ed Kilgore

It is one of the most firmly established facts in U.S. politics that steady majorities of Americans dislike “government spending” as an abstract matter, but approve of most actual spending (just as they regularly endorse, invariably to the blare of conservative trumpets, a smaller government that does less, as long as the “less” involves someone else). And so politicians and entire major political parties that appeal to the public for major spending cuts tend to get a little vague about the specifics. They rely on freezes, across-the-board cuts, “sequestration” gimmicks, 30,000-foot restraints like caps-on-spending-as-percentage of GDP, and all sorts of evasions. Pressed for examples of spending they’d like to get rid of, they come up with the functional equivalent of “whatever spending you don’t like.”

Back during the Reagan Era, the favorite conservative target was “waste, fraud and abuse.” Now who’s going to defend “waste, fraud and abuse?” Another was “foreign aid,” because “foreign aid” is (a) wildly unpopular, (b) perceived as a huge spending category although it isn’t.

So it appears, via Dave Weigel (and others), that PBS, which he singled out in the first debate, has long served as Mitt Romney’s version of “waste, fraud and abuse” or “foreign aid:”

It wasn’t a gaffe. It was a statement that Romney had made many times. He’d start to mention government programs that would be on the Romney-Ryan chopping block, and lead with PBS. It was a distraction — and a very smart one. PBS’s government check makes up less than one-thousandth of one-percent of discretionary spending. Voters don’t know that. In a 2011 CNN poll, taken during the debate over cutting these funds, only 27 percent of voters knew that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting pulled less than 1 percent of the federal budget. A full 7 percent of voters thought it got more than half of the budget. At the debate, Romney repeatedly promised to start balancing the budget despite gigantic tax cuts and spending increases, but the only specific cuts he offered were Obamacare and PBS. I liked the way Matt Taibbi summed up Romney’s answer: “I’ll cut PBS, which is about one millionth of the federal budget, and some other stuff.”

I’d add that public broadcasting has long been a conservative whipping-boy, so mentioning that during the primary season made perfect sense. If I were him I would not have dragged Big Bird into a general election debate; why not just go back to those wasteful, bankrupt, crony-ridden “green jobs” projects he had already attacked and grossly exaggerated earlier in the debate? But Weigel’s right: it’s a diversion from the much bigger reality that any conceivable Romney/Ryan budget plan is going to hit a lot of accounts that are a lot bigger and more popular than PBS.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 5:17 PM:

    In Conservative World, it's a well known "fact" that Big Bird and PBS get a lot more money than Halliburton and Xe (or whatever the feck they're calling themselves these days)!

    And that the poor "Count" has to work overtime at no pay just to count the bottomless cash siphoned off to them.

    Welcome to "Idiot America!"
    Where too many people think PBS gets more government money than GE.

  • meander on October 09, 2012 5:29 PM:

    Speaking of the green jobs target, my Hulu viewing has been sponsored by a highly deceptive ad from the RNC aimed at Rep. Jerry McNerney (CA-11). They tie him to Solyndra because of one of his votes (although the loans were approved by the Bush Administration), and then complain that the millions loaned to Solyndra were lost and that 1,100 jobs were lost ("and 1,100 workers lost their jobs," is how it went, I think). That first part makes some sense, neglecting the fact that the money loaned to Solyndra paid for a new factory, paid wages of construction crews, paid for supplies from local construction suppliers, and so on, and therefore had a some locally stimulative effects. But the part about jobs being lost doesn't make sense if they are talking about Solyndra jobs. If the loan hadn't been made in the first place, would those people have jobs? How could the loan have cost them their jobs at Solyndra? Did that money somehow screw up the company? How many were hired just because of the loan? Or is the RNC contending that the money could have created 1,100 jobs somewhere else?

    Logic, shmogic.

  • Ron Byers on October 09, 2012 5:32 PM:

    I kinda wonder why we can cut big bird but we can't cut defense. The DOD wastes more money every day than PBS gets in a year.

  • Celui on October 09, 2012 6:06 PM:

    Cutz, Schmutz!! This sequestration looms VERY large for the new Congress, regardless of who is elected. Should it be Rmoney, you can be very certain that there will be all sorts of hand-wringing about cutting the military budget; raising it, even. And, this is the nation which has more military spending than the remainder of the world. How many times do we need to confront this bugaboo? It simply reflects the moral corruption that we have brought about: destruction versus construction. Let's see: the entire message of PBS' broadcasting has been towards honest brokers when they speak of politics (think: Bill Moyers), towards building community within a diversity (Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers), and improvement of life together (everything else). Oh, yeah: all the attractively-entertaining BBC-based shows that bring the Abbey to Downtown and the Midwives to the suffering masses. What the hell do these guys want: a return to the glory days of power-bombing? of economic superiority at all costs? of America uber alles?

  • steve story on October 09, 2012 9:11 PM:

    I think it's 1/81th of one percent, not one-thousandth of one percent.

    us fed budget 3.6 trillion
    pbs subsidy 445 million


    still, tiny number.