Appropriators Signal a Radio/TV Marti Showdown

Signaling a potential showdown to come later this spring in the newly constituted House Appropriations Committee, appropriators Jeff Flake and Betty McCollum have each filed amendments to the Continuing Resolution to continue funding the federal government in the current fiscal year, in order to defund Radio and TV Marti broadcasting to Cuba.  With hundreds of amendments under consideration as the House prepares to recess, it's unclear whether there will be a floor vote tonight (I'm still watching the floor debate but it's showing no signs yet of wrapping up).  But I wouldn't be surprised if the bipartisan pair team up on Cuba broadcasting during FY 2012 appropriations committee deliberations later this spring, where they'll have more time, and a smaller fishbowl of colleagues to put on the fiscal spot.

In the meantime, the CR, as it's called, provided the two appropriators the opportunity to raise doubts about continuing what they consider poor uses of taxpayer funds at a time when government spending and spending cuts are particularly sensitive topics in Congress.  Rep. McCollum's office took aim at the Martis and pointedly took issue with Republican proposals to cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which helps fund public broadcasting around the country, at the same time that taxpayer funds continue to support broadcasting to Cuba. 

For his part, Flake took the opportunity to reach out to freshman Republicans, most of whom have yet to establish a record on U.S. Cuba policy, but nearly all of whom were elected on promises of cutting government spending in Washington.  Flake thus frames his argument not on the merits of continuing or loosening U.S. sanctions on Cuba, but on whether it's a good use of taxpayer funds to spend $30 million to continue U.S. broadcasting to Cuba (which are often blocked by the Cuban government).

The text of Representative Flake's Dear Colleague follows below:

February 17, 2010

Dear Colleague,

As incoming freshmen, it is likely that you have yet to establish a record on issues related to U.S.-Cuba policy.  As the dynamics of the larger debate on Cuba policy continue to shift, I look forward to having an opportunity to discuss the issue with you.  That said, with an opportunity imminent to side with U.S. taxpayers, I write to urge you to view limiting the funding for the boondoggle of Radio and TV Marti as strictly a fiscal issue.

Created in 1985 and 1990 respectively and purportedly to open communication to Cuba, Radio and TV Marti have long been a cause for concern and have cost taxpayers over $660 million through Fiscal Year 2010. In December, 2006, press reports alleged significant problems in the Office of Cuba Broadcasting’s (OCB) operations, with claims of cronyism, patronage, and bias in its coverage. In 2007, a TV Marti former programming director pled guilty to federal charges of receiving kickbacks from vendors. In 2008, the GAO issued a report critical of the International Broadcasting Bureau and OCBs lack of transparency and accountability in contracting (see: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08764.pdf). While there has been some debate surrounding the issue, a 2009 GAO report indicated that the best available research “suggests that Radio and TV Marti’s audience is small,” with as little as two percent tuning in to Radio or TV Marti, less an one percent saying they had watched TV Marti (see: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09127.pdf).   I would also commend to your attention recent testimony before House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Human Rights and Oversight from last year entitled “TV Marti Has Virtually No Audience, Violates International Law, and Should Be Closed” which makes the point that with another year of record deficit spending and skyrocketing national debt “to continue spending tens of millions of dollars per year on broadcasts that are ineffective, wasteful, and tarnish the U.S. image abroad is throwing good money after bad”…money that we just don’t have to waste (see: http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/111/nic061709.pdf)

Simply put and independent of the larger issues related to Cuba, Radio and TV Marti are expensive taxpayer boondoggles that have persistent issues related to cost, management, oversight, and effectiveness.  Whether interested in tightening restrictions on Cuba, supportive of the status quo, or encouraged by recent steps toward reforming U.S.-Cuba policy, it is difficult to make a compelling case for continuing to waste funds on Radio and TV Marti.

 

Sincerely,

JEFF FLAKE

Member of Congress