Despite a wave of disruptive furloughs at the Pentagon, CIA, NASA and other federal agencies, Uncle Sam will continue pumping out thousands of hours of government-funded news programs to foreign audiences during the shutdown.
On Tuesday, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the overseer of U.S.-funded news in 61 languages in more than 100 countries, announced that its vast range of TV, radio and Internet programming will remain operational "while the numbers of support personnel are reduced."
"The current broadcasting distribution schedule will remain in place," said the agency. "Internet and new media operations will continue as necessary for overseas audiences."
The Obama administration has determined that BBG’s main services are "foreign relations essential to national security," which will preserve a range of government broadcasters including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (Radio and TV Martí).
The announcement comes as 400,000 civilian employees at the Department of Defense are furloughed, including the secretary of defense’s entire Middle East team charged with U.S. policy toward Syria, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Jordan. Another 12,500 civilians at the CIA are in similar straits. 97% of NASA’s workers are now at home.
One senior congressional staffer, surprised by the decision to keep BBG running, couldn’t help but speculate why programs like TV Martí deserve protection given its struggles to reach its target audience. (This summer, TV Martí earned negative attention for having spent millions of dollars on a plane that beamed shows to Cuba that less than one percent of the population could watch).
"If the Martis shut down, we risk forfeiting our .001% of marketshare on the island we’ve spent decades and hundreds of millions of dollars cultivating," joked the aide.
Of course, other BBG broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe enjoy a better reputation for delivering fact-based news to audiences. During the shutdown, BBG operations have been paried down to encourage the use of "evergreen and pre-recorded material" and prohibit the initiation of "new programs or projects."
BBG spokeswoman Lynne Weil dismissed critics. "The fact that the Office of Management and Budget signed off on this indicates how high a priority our broadcasting activities are," Weil told The Cable. "They’re deemed foreign relations essential to national security according to a legal determination. The mission of the agency is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy."
Meanwhile, as federal bureaucrats gripe over the decisions about who’s essential and who’s expendable, Democrats and Republican in Washington continued the blame game. President Obama spent Tuesday afternoon pressuring Republicans to re-open the government and allow furloughed employees to return to work. "This Republican shutdown did not have to happen. But I want every American to understand why it did happen," said Obama during an address from the Rose Garden. "They’ve shut down the government over an ideological crusade to deny affordable health insurance to millions of Americans."
House Speaker John Boehner, meanwhile, pushed back against accusations that Republicans bear responsibility for the shutdown. "Rejecting the House-passed effort to go to conference, Senate Democrats today slammed the door on re-opening the federal government by refusing to talk," he said.
While it remains unclear how the stand-off will end, some Republicans have begun to indicate support for a "clean" extension of spending, such as Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) — a development that could signal light at the end of the tunnel. Other Republicans, however, are moving to fund only certain parts of the government such as the National Park Service or part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. So until any solution is found, expect more griping about which federal employees deserve a swift vote off the island.