BBG Watch Commentary
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), who recently has introduced an amendment to FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act that, if passed in its current form and signed by the President, would de-federalize the Voice of America (VOA), helped to launch earlier a successful initiative to make changes at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). In 2010, he co-sponsored legislation that became law in 2012, which he claimed expanded VOA’s ability to deliver its programs not only overseas but also in the United States. Rep. Thornberry was, however, also criticized by many bloggers and commentators in the United States for trying to impose on Americans what they said could amount to U.S. government propaganda. Some critics accused him of undermining bipartisan domestic support for U.S. international broadcasting through his earlier tempering with the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act.
Mac Thornberry serves as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee which has the responsibility to oversee the Pentagon, all military services, and all Department of Defense agencies, including their budgets and policies. His official bio can be seen here.
Rep. Thornberry is well-known to at least some senior BBG officials. His earlier legislative initiative, which modified the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, was strongly supported at the time by future BBG member Matt Armstrong and was embraced by the BBG board and other officials.
Mr. Armstrong and BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) deputy director Jeff Trimble and others were discussing Rep. Thornberry’s earlier legislative proposal at the July 2011 public meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Mr. Armstrong was then the Advisory Commission’s executive director.
SEE: Transcript for the July 2011 Public Meeting of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, July 12, 2011
BBG Governor Matt Armstrong’s personal blog, MountainRunner.us, has 13 references to Rep. Thornberry and his earlier 2010-2012 Smith-Mundt Act modification legislation.
The law that was changed in 2012 thanks to Rep. Thornberry’s proposal still says that “No funds authorized to be appropriated to the Department of State or the Broadcasting Board of Governors shall be used to influence public opinion in the United States.” But BBG officials can now assist U.S. broadcasters at taxpayers’ expense if they request VOA programs for use in the United States.
This previous legislative proposal was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama into law after being incorporated as Section 1078 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2013 (Public Law 112-239).
The other co-sponsor of the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act was Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA).
SEE: Facts About Smith-Mundt Modernization, Broadcasting Board of Governors
The new amendment introduced by Rep. Thornberry could have much more radical consequences for U.S. media outreach than his earlier legislative action. It proposes to de-federalize the Voice of America, but it is not clear what would happen to current VOA staffers who are federal government employees. The latest Thornberry amendment authorizes the CEO of U.S. international broadcasting to establish a non-profit organization to carry out the mission of the Voice of America. It also includes a Sense of the Congress that the VOA mission should remain unchanged from that articulated in another bill H.R.2323, which was approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee but has not seen further legislative action in the Senate.
The latest Thornberry amendment as passed by the House of Representatives will go to the Senate which can either accept it, or give their own version. If there is a new Senate version of the amendment, it would necessitate the House and the Senate going into conference where its points can still be argued.