Mitt Romney’s call to indefinitely detain Big Bird, Grover and Mr. Snuffleupagus in the private sector during the first presidential debate created quite a stir.

Romney targeted PBS for the budget cutter’s axe.

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for us.”

And the American people went apoplectic.

Mitt wants to kill Big Bird!

We all love Big Bird. Most of us grew up watching Bert and Ernie banter. We giggled as Cookie Monster spewed crumbs all over himself and wondered why Oscar the Grouch lived in a garbage can. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he was grouchy!

Yup. Mitt skewered a sacred cow, and the blogosphere lit up.

Joan E. Dowlin offered an impassioned defense, not only of Sesame Street, but PBS in general, in a Huffington Post article.

“Ending the station of “Sesame Street,” “Antique Roadshow,” “Masterpiece Theatre,” “Live From Lincoln Center,” “Frontline,” “Nova,” “Bill Moyers Journal, ” “Charlie Rose” and countless specials and concerts? Blasphemous. Tell senior citizens you are taking away “The Lawrence Welk Show.” See what kind of reaction you get. And the PBS “NewHour” [sic] (with Jim Lehrer) is probably the only fair and balanced news show on television. They present just the facts without a bias one way or another.”

Some on the right were also quick to criticize Romney. After all, PBS funding represents a tiny drop in an ocean of debt. Why pick on Big Bird when we have so many other giant programs that need trimming?

Both sides of the argument miss the real point.

Yes, PBS arguably adds value to our society.

Yes. Defunding PBS will do absolutely nothing to white out the red ink spilling all over the Potomac.

But lost in the argument, the most basic question: does the federal government have the authority to fund public television?

No, it does not.

And it shouldn’t receive federal funding on that basis alone.

Doesn’t matter how much quality programing it offers up. Doesn’t matter how many people watch it. Doesn’t matter how awesome Big Bird is.  The people did not delegate the federal government the power to fund public television. Therefore, it may not do it.

Some will argue that the following clause in Article 1 Sec. 8 authorizes funding for arts and sciences.

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

But they completely ignore the most important word in the enumeration – by.

The first clause tell us the purpose of the power…the second clause defines the power. The federal government may promote science and art BY securing the rights to writings and discoveries. It serves as a limiting clause.

It doesn’t say – “…by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries and any other damn way Congress chooses to do so.”

By including a limiting clause, it logically EXCLUDES all other ways of promoting the arts and sciences. “Designato unius est exclusio alterius” – “the designation of one is the exclusion of the other.” If the framers meant for Congress to have unlimited support of the arts, they would not have included the limiting clause. It would have simply read, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

Nope.  No authority to fund PBS there.

So, what about the “general welfare clause?”

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I’ll let James Madison take this one.

If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the General Welfare, the Government is no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.

No authority to fund PBS there either.

In fact, you can pick apart every phrase of the Constitution, and you will not find any federal power to fun television.

As a result, every other argument should fall to the side.

Too often, Americans get all caught up in arguing about whether the federal government should do this or that and ignore the most basic question: can it?

Mike Maharrey

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