Like an old prizefighter suiting up for an exhibition match to summon his glory days, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn this week laced up his gloves and dusted off perennial legislation to end federal funding for public broadcasting.
It's one of the eight-term Republican's most enduring issues, along with marshaling support for the military installations in his district and railing against increased federal spending in general. Since he took office in 2007, Lamborn has introduced similar bills in every Congress but one, though none of the measures has made it to the president's desk.
This year's effort is certain to meet the same fate, as a Democratic-controlled Congress climbs over itself to pile more and more spending on trillion-dollar bills that President Joe Biden is ready to sign.
But if you plop down your 40 bucks to see Foghat at the Coliseum, you'd better get to groove to "Slow Ride."
Year after year, Lamborn continues to haul out the proposal, earning cheers from co-sponsors and endorsing organizations.
But it's an uneven match.
The Public Broadcasting System and its local stations have ranked as the most-trusted national institution for 18 years running, according to an annual poll commissioned by PBS, with 76% of Americans saying they trust public TV in a survey released this spring.
Nearly as many — 69% — called PBS a "good" or "excellent" value for taxpayers in the most recent survey, lagging only the military at 77% and federal food and drug safety oversight at 73%. Nearly 90% of respondents said funding for public broadcasting was about right or falls short.
Against that backdrop of public opinion, Lamborn has embraced his role as the latest villain in a decades-long quest begun in earnest in the Reagan era by conservatives bent on dismantling federal support for the arts, including public TV and radio.
For a few years near the beginning of the last decade, it sounded like Lamborn was engaged in a grudge-match with "Sesame Street" icon Big Bird.
"For his own good, it’s time to push Big Bird out of the nest so he can fly on his own," Lamborn said at one point, when his funding cuts were advancing in the House, rephrasing it slightly a year later as the funding battle again took center stage: "It’s time for Big Bird to earn his wings and learn to fly on his own."
Then, after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney invoked Big Bird as he pledged to cut PBS funding, Lamborn expressed his common cause. "Like Mitt Romney, I like Big Bird. That is not the issue," Lamborn said. "If we have to borrow money from China to keep Big Bird in his nest, it’s time for him to go!"
The closest Lamborn has come to winning his battle with Big Bird was in 2011, when the then-GOP controlled House passed his bills along party lines as stand-alone resolutions, only for them to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
A year earlier, the proposals made it out of a House committee but were voted down by the full body.
Since then, his bills have languished in the House only to occasionally erupt into the spotlight, like when Romney championed the cause.
The sympathetic Trump administration routinely called for ending federal funding for PBS and NPR in its annual budget requests — along with pulling the plug on the National Endowment for the Arts — but even during the administration's first two years, when Republicans controlled the House and Senate, the plan went nowhere.
In 2017, however, Trump and Lamborn's attempts got the attention of Elmo, the lovable Sesame Street character, who went viral in a video that depicted his firing.
"Elmo, you're being laid off," an off-screen voice said as the red creature reacted with dismay.
"Just like that? Elmo has been working at Sesame Street for 32 years!" Elmo said. "What's going to happen to Elmo's insurance? Elmo has pre-existing conditions."
After some more discussion, a sullen Elmo concluded, "Elmo's only real talent is ... being Elmo."
The clip ends with the hand that animated Elmo departing, leaving the lifeless puppet on a table, followed by a pitch to donate to PBS.
Every year, Lamborn has made three distinct arguments — to varying degrees — when he's introduced his bills.
First, he maintains that the federal government has no business sending hard-earned taxpayer dollars — or dollars borrowed from abroad — to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS and National Public Radio, as well as to public radio stations that also chip in to pay for NPR programing. He adds there's no constitutional justification for the federal government paying for broadcast media.
Lamborn also argues that the original justification for federal funding for the TV and radio entities has long since expired, since the media landscape has changed immensely since PBS and NPR were the only alternative game in town, and because both get significant funding from corporate underwriters, licensing and member dues — amounting to about 85% of their budget, according to most estimates.
"While many Americans are making sacrifices around the country to make ends meet, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been unwilling to do the same," Lamborn said nearly a decade ago. "Even as media and information have become more accessible than ever, funding for CPB has exploded."
Long gone are the days when TV viewers had three broadcast networks and maybe a fourth local station to choose from, as was the case when PBS was the only offering with educational programming of any sort. That included children's programming, cooking, how-to, travel and history shows, as well as high-brow drama imported from Great Britain and other viewer favorites.
Now there are entire cable networks and streaming services devoted to every corner that PBS once pioneered, though advocates argue that many stations — particularly those serving rural areas — rely on federal funding to keep afloat.
Neither PBS, NPR, Rocky Mountain PBS nor Colorado Public Radio responded to Colorado Politics' request for comment on Lamborn's latest legislation, but the organizations' defenders have been telling a similar story for years.
"PBS and our 350 member stations across the country have earned bipartisan Congressional support over the years due to the high value the American people place on the services we provide their communities," said PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger in a 2019 statement.
"For a modest investment of about $1.35 per citizen per year, public television provides school readiness for children, support for teachers and caregivers, public safety communications and lifelong learning through high-quality content."
She also pointed to that year's 16th version of the national survey showing PBS was the most trusted institution.
In addition, using fresh examples each time, Lamborn has argued that PBS and NPR are skewed to the left, sometimes citing hiring decisions, sometimes pointing to news coverage, and once blasting a children's cartoon that portrayed a same-sex wedding between a rat and an aardvark.
One result of the high-profile battles over funding for PBS and NPR has been that the member stations see increased support every time Lamborn paints a target on their back.
In 2011, Lamborn put his mug where his mouth was, appearing in a promo video with Rocky Mountain PBS CEO Doug Price to urge viewers to support the network and its programming.
"We don’t see eye to eye on everything about public broadcasting, but I know you and your family have supported Rocky Mountain PBS with an individual gift," Price said. Lamborn agreed that may surprise some people, adding, "But I do know that Rocky Mountain PBS has a vital role in the marketplace of Colorado media."