The Rumble on Sesame Street

There are lots of ways for a bill to die in Congress. It can lack the right sponsors. It can perish in committee if it doesn't have the chairman's backing. It can fizzle under a Senate filibuster.

Or, it can succumb to a Muppet.

Such was the case in 1995 when a new Republican majority in Congress, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), championed the charge to "zero-out" the quasi-government agency called Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

"It was Big Bird that killed us," said former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-LA), who headed the panel that controls federal purse strings.

Republicans rode to power in 1995 pledging to change how business was done in Washington. Within the first few months, the House whipped through its ten-point Contract with America. But it was well-known that the 11th tenet of the Contract was to wean public broadcasters from the federal trough.

"They are simply enclaves of the left using your money to propagandize your children against your values," said Gingrich about public broadcasting during a January 4, 1995 Washington Times interview, the very day he assumed the speakership.

Gingrich went on to decry public broadcasting as a "sandbox for the rich" and said the CPB is "eating taxpayers money." Many of Gingrich's Republican revolutionaries felt the same. And once they finished the Contract with America, Congress was ready to ax public broadcasting.

"This institution is in more serious jeopardy than it has ever been before," said then-CPB President Richard Carlson. "Public broadcasting is clearly going to lose some, if not all, of its federal money."

Until public broadcasters called the cavalry.

They didn't beckon Jim Lehrer from PBS's NewsHour. They didn't dispatch Russell Baker from Masterpiece Theatre, documentarian Ken Burns or Nina Totenberg from NPR.

Instead, public broadcasters summoned happy warriors. Furry, happy warriors. Big Bird. Elmo. Bert and Ernie. Kermit the Frog. And a singing, purple Tyrannosaurus Rex named Barney.

The Hill hath no fury like a Muppet scorned.

The Muppets took Manhattan in their 1983 film. And they added the halls of Congress to their manifesto during a hearing before Bob Livingston's committee on January 19, 1995.

Congressional Republicans never saw it coming. Especially when Bert and Ernie joined Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) on the dais.

"Make no mistake about it, this debate is about Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Barney and Kermit and the new Republican majority that would put them on the chopping block," Lowey said. "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is much more popular than Mr. Gingrich's Sesame Street."

The public fumed. And had questions. How could the Republicans even think about slashing money for Sesame Street? What about the children? Who are these new people running Congress?

The effort to cut federal money for public broadcasting withered. And in retrospect, Bob Livingston says it was Big Bird who did him in.

"I can truthfully say he decked me," conceded Livingston.

Fast forward to today. Republicans stand on the precipice of potentially winning back control of the House and perhaps the Senate. And the maelstrom over NPR's firing of Juan Williams has ignited calls from Congressional Republicans to slash the CPB's budget or execute a surgical strike directed at NPR.

(In the interest of full-disclosure, I previously worked in public broadcasting with stops at WMUB-FM, NPR and Capitol News Connection before joining FOX in 2007.)

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) announced Friday he would "include NPR as an option in the YouCut program so that Americans can let it be known whether they want their dollars going to that organization." YouCut is Cantor's initiative to post several proposed spending targets online each week. People can then decide which program they'd like to eliminate. Cantor then brings the "winner" to the House floor for a vote.

Different accounting measures reveal a dispute about how much money NPR receives from the federal government.

In fact during an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller declared that "NPR gets no allocation from CPB" and called any direct government link "laughable."

However, Schiller said that "some money from CPB does come to us when we win grants."

But those grants make up a fraction of NPR's nearly $162 million annual budget. And NPR did receive $50,000 from the federal stimulus law to hire an arts reporter.

NPR also receives "indirect" federal funding. Many of its member stations get CPB dollars and sometimes use that to "purchase" NPR programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. NPR says Washington sends local stations around $90 million a year.

As the expression goes, "follow the money." And that's exactly what Cantor wants to do with federal funds that trickle their way into NPR's coffers.

"We are going to conduct a full audit to trace avenues that federal dollars go to NPR," said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring. "At a minimum, we would include preventing the flow of taxpayer dollars to NPR through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

In June, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) introduced a bill to eliminate all federal money for the CPB. The legislation gained little attention and went nowhere. But now Republicans are surging and majorities in both houses of Congress could be within reach. And at the very least, the GOP is poised to usher in a wave of conservatives who believe they have a mandate to cut the federal budget.

The furor over NPR makes for easy red meat Republicans can toss to their conservative base.

"I think it's reasonable to ask why Congress is spending taxpayers' money to support a left-wing radio network," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH). "In the wake of the Juan Williams' firing, it's clearer than ever that's what NPR is."

So public broadcasting is an easy bogeyman for the right. Just like in the mid-1990s.

"I'd like to take it up," Lamborn said of his legislation. "We could have a real tide of fiscally-conservative people who could be more willing to cut (the CPB) budget than in 1994. The fiscal outlook is bleaker now than it was then."

Lamborn admits he likes Mystery! on PBS and described Ken Burns' recent documentary about the national parks as "wonderful." But the Colorado Republican says Washington needs to tighten its belt.

In his second term, Lamborn wasn't in Congress in 1995 for "The Great Muppet Caper." But he thinks the climate is different now. And Lamborn has a warning for lawmakers who try to salvage the CPB by trotting out Sesame Street characters again.

"They can defend Bert and Ernie and then they can get a pink slip in two years," Lamborn said. In fact, Bob Livingston doubts that Big Bird holds the same sway that he did 15 years ago.

"I don't think he'll be as persuasive," Livingston said, who encouraged the GOP to target NPR. "They ought to go at it. If they had just come up with this idea (of funding public broadcasting) last week, it wouldn't have a prayer today."

Sensing blood in the water, other Republicans leaped on the anti-NPR, anti-CPB bandwagon. Like Lamborn, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) announced plans to introduce legislation to strike federal money for public broadcasting. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) suggested that NPR introduce new programs ranging from "Socialist Survivor" to "Lost: The Obama Presidency."

Either way, NPR's firing of Juan Williams rekindled a flame that had long been extinguished in Washington. It could pose the biggest funding challenge to public broadcasting in 15 years. Many Republicans who'll make up the new Congress weren't around for the fisticuffs between the GOP and the Sesame Street gang in 1995. That battle bruised Republican leaders and marked their first major failure after the victories of 1994. It's anybody's guess who would win that fight.

Some questions: Would a potential Republican Congressional majority want to make defunding public broadcasting the touchstone of their new legislative agenda? If public broadcasting is in the crosshairs, are Big Bird, Bert and Ernie still up to the challenge?

But here's the most pressing question? Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

We'll know soon if the route cuts right through the heart of the U.S. Capitol.