When House Republicans voted in an emergency session last week to block federal funding to NPR, they accomplished three of their favorite things. They made a big show out of pretending to cut a minuscule budget item. They stuck it to their nemesis, the undefined group known as "elitists." And finally, they struck another blow to the power of facts and information in American political discourse.
Imagine the impact of trimming $5 million from a $1.6 trillion deficit. Even if passed by the Senate and signed by the president, it wouldn't tear a single "elitist" away from This American Life. It would instead do something much less flashy and much sadder -- it would force a few hundred local radio news stations, mostly in rural areas, to go dark. And, perhaps most importantly for the bill's sponsors, it would legislate one of the Right's favorite unfounded talking points: that balanced news and empirical fact are inherently "left-leaning" and "elitist."
Last week's NPR show-vote was the purest example yet of the Republican Congress's real goals from the budget process: let corporations and the wealthy keep their massive tax breaks, while making the budget debate revolve around tiny expenditures that benefit the daily lives of Americans. And, while they're at it, work at discrediting individuals and organizations that they dislike -- with or without facts to back up their attacks.
How much the Republican Congress relies on these "culture war" distractions -- and the extent of their grudge against facts and honest debate -- is apparent in the gleeful choice of James O'Keefe III as their new and greatest ally. O'Keefe, a convicted criminal and fraudster, wouldn't be anybody's idea of a solid ally if he weren't also incredibly useful. But in skillfully twisting the truth to go after favorite right-wing targets, O'Keefe has proven himself incredibly valuable to the Republican Congress.
Just two months after O'Keefe went to ACORN offices pretending to be a pimp looking for tax help, 52 percent of Republican voters had become convinced that the voter registration organization stole the 2008 election for Barack Obama. When his protégé Lila Rose put out some supremely unconvincing videos supposedly showing that Planned Parenthood was willing to aid a child prostitution ring, all federally-funded family planning centers suddenly had to start fighting for their lives. And as soon as O'Keefe released a dishonestly edited video showing an NPR fundraising executive saying some unwise things -- to an ersatz Muslim no less -- the House GOP was ready with another line-item show vote.
I feel confident saying that anybody who takes their budget policy cues from James O'Keefe doesn't really care about the budget.
What O'Keefe's friends on Capitol Hill do care about is his remarkable ability to discredit the truth -- and the valuable distraction that his shenanigans provide. Helping local NPR stations costs the U.S. $5 million each year. Funding to family planning clinics that help millions of women get affordable birth control, cancer screenings, and screenings and treatment for STDs cost $317 million each year. Before ACORN folded under right-wing pressure, the group received about $3.5 million each year to help fund its voter registration and anti-poverty efforts. In contrast, tax breaks for oil and gas companies will cost $2.6 billion in the 2011 fiscal year alone. Extending Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans costs will cost roughly $65 billion just in 2011.
Any budget process that focuses on ACORN, NPR and family planning isn't really about fixing the federal budget. Instead, Republicans in Congress have decided to use the budget process as another platform for picking political fights at the expense of millions of ordinary Americans -- and they're trying to discredit and eliminate real sources of news and information in the process. The attempt to defund NPR is a distraction -- but it's a distraction with serious consequences for Congress's priorities.