A group of conservative senators successfully stopped a last-ditch effort to weaken the power of President Trump's choice to lead the nation's taxpayer-funded global broadcasting operation.
The move paves the way for Senate confirmation of Michael Pack, Trump's choice to head the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).
The USAGM, previously called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, oversees the Voice of America and other U.S. taxpayer-funded broadcasting operations countering the propaganda arms of American adversaries such as Russia, Iran, and China.
A bill sponsored by Sens. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) and former Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), which critics argued would seriously undermine the incoming head of the USAGM, died on the vine when the previous Congress ended and the 116th Congress convened Thursday afternoon.
A group of conservative senators opposed the late 2018 effort to try to diminish Pack's power even before he started the job. The USAGM, previously the Broadcasting Board of Governors, oversees the Voice of America and related taxpayer-funded media outlets.
At least one conservative senator placed an anonymous hold on the bill preventing it from being attached to any must-pass measures Congress approved in the final weeks of December, several sources told the Washington Free Beacon.
Menendez’s office did not respond to a Free Beacon question asking whether the senator plans to re-introduce the measure this Congress. With Corker gone, Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho) is poised to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee while Menendez will remain the ranking Democrat.
Risch, a conservative Republican who is far less hostile to Trump than Corker was, is expected to block any action on the measure if Menendez reintroduces it and will likely act early this year to confirm Pack so he can take the USAGM helm. Corker and Menendez have been blocking his confirmation for months.
The bill's detractors celebrated its legislative demise with one calling it a "vile" attempt by Obama holdovers, including USAGM CEO John Lansing and VOA Director Amanda Bennett, to reverse previous legislation they pushed to strengthen the top USAGM officials when they thought Hillary Clinton would be elected president and they would remain in control of agency operations.
"It was the most hypocritical thing because it was trying to do the opposite of what they previously wanted because the situation had chanced—Trump was elected—and the changes made in 2016 no longer benefited them," said the critic, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution.
The bill would make the current board members the members of a new advisory board. The current group is bipartisan, but members were appointed by President Obama and all are operating on expired terms.
It also gives the board a veto in the hiring and firing of the VOA head and all other top officials of the related agencies, including Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting.
Bennett is at the center of a fierce partisan battle over the agency’s leadership and direction, and the veto power likely would have protected her from being replaced by a Trump appointee.
Former Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), a long advocate for reforming the troubled USAGM who retired in December, also voiced his public opposition to the bill before leaving Congress. He served as the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has oversight jurisdiction of the USAGM.
In one of his final acts as chairman, Royce released the results of a three-month congressional investigation that uncovered new evidence of management failures at the USAGM, the latest problem to be exposed after the agency has experienced a string of scandals.
He has argued that the problems plaguing the USAGM have allowed the Russians and other U.S. foes to gain the upper hand in the information-warfare sphere and has pushed for strengthening management’s powers, not weakening them.
"We're faced with a misinformation onslaught, and we've got to get this right," he said when releasing his oversight report in late December.
Pack is a documentary filmmaker who previously served as a Corporation for Public Broadcasting executive. More recently, he ran the conservative Claremont Institute and its Review of Books.
Bennett and her supporters on the left cite Pack's ties to White House adviser Steve Bannon as cause for concern. The pair worked together on two documentaries, although colleagues have said Pack has had a much broader role in the conservative movement and would in no way be beholden to Bannon, especially after his falling out with Trump.
The USAGM, which had a $680 million budget for fiscal year 2018, was created more than seven decades ago to counter propaganda from repressive regimes with coverage that promotes freedom and democracy worldwide.
Strategies to pursue that lofty goal without squandering taxpayer dollars have shifted with the agency's changing leadership and has become a matter of extensive partisan debate over the last several years.