Remarks as prepared for delivery on Thursday, November 14, 2019.
Cynthia asked me to speak this morning about “what’s next in Washington.”
How much time do you have?
Let’s begin with our own funding situation.
Early this year, I asked the new chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee which controls our funding for a $50 million increase in the appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
We have been level funded at $445 million for the past 10 years – and we have been fortunate to maintain level funding while dozens of other programs have been substantially reduced or eliminated altogether.
But this long period of steady funding has come with a cost: we have lost close to $100 million in purchasing power as the compound effects of inflation – even low inflation – have eroded the value of the 2010 dollar.
This erosion, in turn, has limited our ability to provide the essential local services in education, public safety and civic leadership the American people have come to expect of public television.
This case was persuasive to the chairman, to her colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee, and to the full house of representatives, which voted in May to give us the full $50 million increase we’d requested.
When I went to see the chairman of our Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, shortly after that House vote, to ask if the senate might agree to this $50 million increase, I was advised that the senate would be dealing with much lower numbers in the first drafts of its appropriations bills. And we would be lucky to get level funding from the senate at the beginning of its process.
That’s exactly what happened, and now we – like everyone else who receives federal money – anxiously await the outcome of intense negotiations between the House and the Senate as they try to complete action on 12 appropriations bills in the next six weeks.
Since the beginning of the new federal fiscal year that began October 1, we have all been operating under a “continuing resolution” that funds the government at last year’s levels.
That continuing resolution expires a week from today, and everyone in Washington expects that at least one more “CR” must be adopted by then to give negotiators time to finish this work by year’s end.
The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees agreed Tuesday night that they would propose a second “CR” through December 20, in hopes that all 12 appropriations bills would be passed by then.
If they aren’t, we may face the prospect of a year-long continuing resolution that keeps our funding – and everybody else’s – at last year’s levels.
There are four principal impediments to reaching a comprehensive agreement on these appropriations.
First is the considerable difference between the House and Senate in the overall spending levels under which each chamber has drafted its appropriations bills.
The Senate is operating under the terms of an overall spending deal which the House and Senate agreed to after the House approved its version of our funding bill.
The Senate’s numbers on all 12 appropriations bills are lower than the House’s, and these differences must be resolved in any final appropriations legislation.
Second is the continuing disagreement between Republicans and Democrats on the need for several billion dollars to build a border security wall between the United States and Mexico.
President Trump shut down the government for 35 days last year over this issue, and there has been no discernible movement toward its resolution since.
Third is the issue of impeachment. The House opened the public phase of its impeachment inquiry yesterday, and as the pace of this proceeding accelerates, the political atmosphere in Washington will only grow more highly charged – making agreement on border security or any other issue all the more difficult to achieve.
And if the House impeaches the president, a subsequent trial in the Senate would consume at least half the Senate’s time every day for a month or more, beginning in January, making work on other Senate business – including appropriations – that much more challenging.
And then there are the elections of 2020, with caucuses and primaries beginning in February, and political leaders trying to draw the sharpest possible distinctions between themselves and their opponents to give voters the clearest possible choice.
Any one of these complications could derail the appropriations process by itself.
All four looming together make the situation daunting indeed.
So what do we do in the midst of this maelstrom? We do our jobs.
America’s Public Television Stations will continue to advocate for the $50 million increase in federal funding we urgently need.
PBS has committed to cover the impeachment hearings gavel-to-gavel, continuing the tradition of comprehensive and measured coverage that began with the Watergate hearings in 1973.
American Public Television will continue to offer programming that lifts our sights beyond the Washington drama and reminds us that there is a world of wonder, and culture, and laughter, and human interest to be explored and enjoyed by millions of our fellow citizens.
These programs will include biographies of Count Basie and Elizabeth the First; nature and science offerings such as Changing Seas and The Desert Speaks; children’s series like Kid Stew and Biz Kid$; comedy from Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner; The Art Detectives, and Poetry in America; NHK Newsline, D-Day, and Frank Lloyd Wright; and so much more.
And each one of your stations will embrace your continuing responsibility:
To tell the stories of heartland and hometown America, to teach your communities’ children, to keep your neighbors safe, to be constructive conveners of people who want to make life better for all of us.
It’s tempting for those of us in Washington to assume that our 330 million countrymen are as mesmerized by our minute-to-minute political developments as we are.
But, thank goodness, this isn’t so.
On a typical day, five million Americans are watching cable news.
The other 325 million of us have other things to do: going to work, taking care of our families, enjoying our friends, serving our communities, living our lives.
We know we have a sacred duty to fulfill a year from now, when we elect a president, 33 senators, 435 representatives, 11 governors, 47 state legislatures, and a host of local officials to protect and promote our interests in the councils of government.
We will be ready to make large, consequential decisions about the future of our country and of the world we share with six billion other “riders on the earth together.”
Public television will help make us ready.
PBS NewsHour, Washington Week, and all the public affairs programming you produce locally will help us make sense of these extraordinary times.
We will host hundreds of candidate debates at every level of the election ballot.
Frontline will crystallize “the choice” we must make between candidates for the presidency.
We will do our job.
And then the American people will do theirs: they will exercise the popular sovereignty that America invented.
Elections are never really about the candidates; they’re about us: who we are, who we want to be, where we want to go, the things we value, the future we hope to create for ourselves and our children.
My old boss, Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, used to talk about “the collective genius of the American people” and about his faith in a political system that aired “the full range of our demands and dissents” before giving us the opportunity to render our judgments in free and fair elections.
That faith is tested regularly in our boisterous and riven society, but it has seen us through much more perilous times than these during our 230-year experiment in self-government.
Those of us of a certain age can remember 1968 – a year of assassination, and war, and protest, and riots – when we feared the center would not hold.
As a very young man, I was involved in the 1974 impeachment proceeding against President Nixon – another era when America was “a house divided” with no clear path to reconciliation.
Lloyd Wright swears he saw me at the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868, but he is mistaken.
Still, I have witnessed enough of my country’s history to know that we are a resilient, practical, good-hearted people who love our country, take our responsibility of self-government seriously, and wish to be a force for good in the world, as the millions of veterans we honored this week would attest.
What’s next in Washington may strain this confidence, but will not shake it.
As President Lincoln said when our nation was about to go to war with itself:
“We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.
“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”