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This year's floor debate over funding for TV Marti was unusually spirited, with more House members jumping into the fray than ever before. "I don't know if it was because it was my last year," says Skaggs, "but it was certainly more robust than it has been in the past."
As he has done every year, Skaggs first tried to strike the funding for TV Marti in committee. But this year the chairman of the Appropriations Committee used a parliamentary maneuver to block him. Skaggs says he felt particularly betrayed because the chairman's efforts came "at the insistence of one of my colleagues on the committee." He hinted that it was a fellow Democrat, but would not name the person.
A review of Appropriations Committee membership offers one immediate suspect: Carrie Meek, who has consistently supported funding for the Martis and who, in recent years, has formed an alliance with the Cuban-American community in order to gain their help on issues involving Haitian refugees.
Stymied at the committee level, Skaggs pulled his own parliamentary two-step on the House floor, surprising his colleagues by introducing -- several hours before anyone was expecting it -- an amendment to an appropriations bill that would have cut TV Marti's $9.4 million budget. Skaggs says it was the only way he could guarantee a public debate.
As part of his presentation, he held up a photo of a television set tuned to TV Marti. The image on the screen was nothing more than wavy lines. "We had a lot of fun with the photograph," he laughs.
Supporters of TV Marti quickly scrambled to the floor and launched into their usual hyperbolic defense. "I've gotten used to it," he says, "so I'm no longer amazed."
After nearly two hours of debate, Skaggs's amendment was rejected; 251 members voted to continue TV Marti funding while 172 voted to eliminate it. Every representative from South Florida voted to maintain funding, including Meek, Diaz-Balart, Alcee Hastings, Clay Shaw, Peter Deutsch, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Although Skaggs may be disappointed he wasn't able to abolish TV Marti before leaving Congress, he finds comfort in knowing that he leaves behind a legacy of reason concerning the issue, a legacy worthy of emulation by our own elected officials.
But judge for yourself. Below are excerpts from this year's debate over TV Marti.
MR. DAVID SKAGGS: Mr. Chairman, this amendment makes a very small addition to the Marshals Service fund and deletes $9.4 million in funding for TV Marti for a very simple reason: It is a complete waste of money.
For members who may not be familiar with this program, I will first try to explain the logical reasons that we ought to end TV Marti, but let me just acknowledge at the outset some advice that I got from a very informed staff person over at the United States Information Agency. He said, "Congressman, you know, you're trying to use logic to battle a cartoon." So if some of this seems a little bit surreal as we go along, that perhaps will help members understand what is going on.
Mr. Chairman, TV Marti is broadcast out of a balloon hung over the Florida Keys most weekdays from 3:30 a.m. until 8:00 a.m., and it goes to, or tries to go to, the greater Havana area. But since TV Marti began broadcasting in 1990, virtually nobody has seen it because, sad to say, the Castro government is very successful in jamming it. To date we have spent over $110 million, real money, on this failed program. I think it follows, quite logically, that since nobody sees this TV program, it really can make no contribution to bringing freedom and democracy to Cuba, a goal which we all share.
On the other hand, this amendment does not touch Radio Marti, the sister program of TV Marti, which does get through, just as Radio Free Europe got through despite jamming by the Soviets during the Cold War. My amendment has no effect on Radio Marti. During the Cold War, radio transmissions had a significant audience in the Eastern Bloc because it is relatively easy to defeat jamming of radio. Television signals, on the other hand, are exclusively line of sight, easy to jam, and as a practical matter there really is no alternative frequency. TV Marti's broadcasts have been jammed from the beginning. At least seven, count them, seven objective studies by people without an ax to grind in this have been done since 1991. Not one of them has found any significant audience for TV Marti.
We should have disbanded this operation back in 1994 after an advisory panel found there was no significant audience. Instead the backers of this program came up with, I think, the slightly nutty idea that if only we changed from a VHF, very high frequency, signal to an ultrahigh frequency, UHF signal, that that would solve the problem. We spent $1.7 million doing that, knowing full well that it would be even easier to jam the UHF signal than the VHF. All it takes to do that is for some signal to be transmitted on the same frequency as TV Marti with a comparable field strength. Our own National Association of Broadcasters has told us it requires little more than a 100-watt transmitter and an off-the-shelf antenna and that could deliver enough field strength in a 30-mile diameter to be effective.