BBG Watch EXCLUSIVE
Some members of Congress are angry at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), its board members, and its senior staffers for resisting reforms, congressional sources told BBG Watch. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) published Tuesday a scathing criticism of the BBG: This Broken Agency is Losing the Info War to ISIS & Putin
” Millions of dollars have been squandered….We cannot allow incompetence and Washington bureaucracy to hold us back any longer,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee press release said.
“Enough is enough. … A generation ago, we broadcast America’s values – including freedom and respect for human rights – to help win the Cold War. Today, the United States must rely on this strategy again to counter Putin and help defeat ISIS and its online caliphate. We cannot allow incompetence and Washington bureaucracy to hold us back any longer,” the press release said.
Some members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from both parties who are keeping an eye on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) are also fuming over BBG’s alleged lobbying against a bipartisan bill designed to reform the federal agency in charge of U.S. civilian media outreach overseas. They were particularly incensed by “talking points” purportedly produced by one or several BBG senior staffers and sent by a BBG Governor to at least one Senate office, congressional sources told BBG Watch.
Congressional staffers were alerted to BBG’s possible lobbying efforts against passage of the H.R. 2323 bill when a document without a header or other identifying information trashing the bill appeared on the Hill. Government employees who produced the document, which the BBG describes as “talking points” for Governor Michael Kempner to use in his discussions on the Hill, could be in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1913, the Anti-Lobby Act (Lobbying with Appropriated Moneys), congressional sources said.
18 U.S. Code § 1913 (Lobbying with Appropriated Moneys) is a criminal statute applicable to all Federal executive branch employees. It prohibits the use of appropriated funds (including the use of official employee time and Government resources) for activities that are intended or designed (directly or indirectly) to influence in any manner a member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government (Federal, state or local) to favor or oppose any legislation, law or appropriation.
House Foreign Affairs Committee staff reportedly asked BBG officials whether they attempted to hide the origin of the document. The BBG said the document was not intended for transmittal to the Hill and in the future, any documentation sent to the Hill will clearly demarcate the sender with all official markings.
“While the incident stinks of lobbying and a violation of the letter of the law, the Department of Justice has never prosecuted anyone on this basis,” a congressional source told BBG Watch. In some judicial opinions, the intent of the law would not capture what BBG did, our source explained. It is also unlikely, our congressional source said, that anything would ever come of having the Inspector General or others look at this more deeply. The BBG knows Congress is watching what they do and that the BBG needs to keep its anti-reform tactics above the board, we were told.
“The agency is playing dirty but that’s not surprising; BBG leadership has always been driven by personal concerns rather than the well-being of the agency or the overall mission,” a senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch requesting anonymity.
New BBG CEO and Director John Lansing announced recently that the agency is “carefully weighing pressing national security concerns, government-wide spending constraints and the need to fine-tune our operations to deliver more impact.”
Congressional sources told BBG Watch that the BBG is spending a lot of time on the Hill these days trying to convince Senate members to reject H.R.2323. They see John Lansing as leading the charge, at the direction of BBG Chairman Jeff Shell. Since neither Lansing nor Shell have previous government experience, they may be receiving bad advice from BBG’s longtime senior staffers on how to deal with Congress. These staffers are terrified by the prospect of H.R. 2323 becoming law.
Congressional sources told BBG Watch that the message these BBG officials are now circulating is that they would rather have no bill at all than H.R. 2323.
“It’s an interesting position to take since it not only contradicts what BBG Chairman Jeff Shell has said previously, but it also suggests that the status quo at the agency is working,” one senior congressional staffer told BBG Watch.
“Does anyone actually believe that the status quo is working?,” the staffer asked.
A BBG official who also requested anonymity told us that the talking points on legislative reforms were “no big deal” and that Chairman Shell and new CEO John Lansing are committed to reforming the agency.
BBG employees, however, are deeply frustrated with the bloated BBG bureaucracy and what they see as inadequate program support. The BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), which takes 34% of the BBG’s budget for its administrative staff and program support, was unable to stream live President Obama’s Guantanamo statement on Tuesday and failed to stream live John Lansing’s Town Hall meeting with employees for those who could not attend. Many VOA foreign language services did not report on President Obama’s Guantanamo statement for several hours because they lack adequate staff and resources to update their websites and social media platforms 24/7 while the number of high-paying bureaucratic positions has been increasing rapidly in recent years. VOA English news website shows minimal audience engagement because VOA Newsroom also lacks experienced staff, resources, and good leadership. While a Washington Post report on President Obama’s Guantanamo remarks was showing over 1,800 comments Wednesday night, a VOA English news report was showing only three, all of them from the United States. U.S. law is clear that VOA should be targeting audiences abroad, not in the United States.