By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Big Bird gave San Bernardino County Congressman Jerry Lewis a black eye last week. Lewis, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is the conservative obscurantist who has been leading the right-wing Republican effort to slash the budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) — which provides funding for PBS, NPR and their local affiliates — and put it out of existence.
But last Thursday, when the CPB appropriation came up for a vote on the floor of the House, the 25 percent budget cut Lewis had forced through his committee was restored, thanks to defections by Republicans afraid of public broadcasting’s popularity in the opinion polls — 87 GOPers deserted their party leadership and voted to give back to CPB $100 million Lewis had snatched from it.
However, Lewis and the Republicans — who want eventually to phase out CPB’s appropriation altogether — can still boast that they’ve managed to kill another $102.3 million in federal funding for public broadcasting. They’ve erased $79 million for PBS and its affiliates that funded both a satellite interconnection program to send content to local stations, and public TV stations’ federally mandated conversion to digital transmission. And they’ve pulled the $23 million for TV from the “Ready To Read, Ready To Learn” program — Laura Bush’s putative darling — which had helped pay for PBS children’s programming. This Lewis-sponsored cut successfully eliminates funding for PostcardsFromBuster,the kids’ show that became the target of censorious, anti-gay attacks by George Bush’s secretary of education?, Margaret Spellings, when it showed Buster visiting a Vermont family headed by a lesbian couple. Thanks to Lewis, Buster — a cartoon rabbit — won’t be sending any more post cards. Other popular children’s programs deprived of funding by Lewis include CliffordtheBigRedDog,Arthurand DragonTales(Sesame Street,which has other funding sources, isn’t as vulnerable as these other shows, which don’t).
And Lewis’ anti-PBS crusade is only part of the Republicans’ all-out effort to tame public broadcasting.
First, just who is Jerry Lewis? A member of Congress since 1978, Lewis represents the safest Republican seat in California, a sprawling district (made even safer for the GOP in the last redistricting) that includes the easternmost suburbs of the Greater Los Angeles area, as well as the fastest-growing communities in the Mojave Desert, and stretches all the way to the Nevada border. So entrenched is Lewis that the Democrats didn’t even put up a candidate against him in the last two elections.
That’s hardly surprising given Lewis’ record of vindictiveness against his political opponents. “Lewis has a troubling, angry side, and an intimidating electoral style that can best be described as embodying pre-Watergate ethics,” says a prominent Democratic activist and businessman in Lewis’ district who, fearing reprisals from Lewis, requested anonymity. “The last time we put up a serious candidate against Lewis, he really went after the guy, put muckraking ‘political consultants’ on him paid out of campaign funds, went after our candidate’s clients and tried to ruin him, pressured one of our guy’s clients into suing him — Lewis is a take-no-prisoners kind of fellow.”
Lewis is a longtime congressional water carrier for the military-industrial complex, and for years has raked in big campaign bucks from its corporate behemoths like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, United Technologies, General Dynamics and General Atomics. Lewis’ congressional district is chock-full of military bases — including the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Training Command, Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.
Another huge facility in Lewis’ district is the million-acre Army National Training Center for desert warfare. A middle school, built to serve the center’s off-base military families, bears Lewis’ name, and is a charter school funded with what are called “special-impact funds,” which Lewis procured. The school was the centerpiece in another unsavory political scandal involving Lewis. A few years ago, a school-board member in the Silver Valley United School District, which has jurisdiction over the middle school, discovered some $15 million in cost overruns at the Lewis school, as the DesertDispatchand the SanBernardinoSunreported at the time. A General Accounting Office investigation found dozens of irregularities, and a draft report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s Office sharply criticized the Lewis school’s management. Lewis’ reaction to all this? He had his cronies initiate a successful recall election against the obstreperous school-board member who’d spotlighted the fraud, twisted arms to destroy the man’s business, and, as the then-chairman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing Defense appropriations, put pressure on the Pentagon to scrub its scandal-revealing draft report, which no longer officially exists (although a copy is in the possession of local Democrats). Lewis is not a politician many have the guts to cross swords with.
Illustration by Mr. Fish