By MARSHA MERCER
Few things are as reliable in Washington as Republicans’ trying to abolish funding for the arts and humanities.
They tried it in the 1980s and 1990s, and as soon as Republicans regained control of the House this year, they again began eyeing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities for extinction.
The Republican Study Committee, a group of 175 conservative House Republicans, wants to do away with the two agencies, known as the NEA and NEH. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., chairman of the Republican Senate Steering Committee, is onboard. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., includes the NEA and NEH in his own package of to-be-terminated programs.
The actual dollar amount involved in the so-called “spending reform” is miniscule -- $167.5 million a year each for the NEA and the NEH. Together, that’s barely more per capita than the cost of two postage stamps.
Also on the chopping block is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports 1,300 local public radio and TV stations. The CPB receives federal aid equal to slightly more than three postage stamps per American per year.
But of course this is about more than money. Republicans see the bloated federal deficit as a helpful tool in reshaping government. They see NEA and NEH, public broadcasting and legal services as liberal monuments that should be toppled. This is the “Groundhog Day” of Washington budget-cutting.
Conservatives have been arguing since Congress created the NEA and NEH in 1965 that the government should have no role in supporting the arts. The critics are philosophical descendants of the people who once said publicly funded libraries were a waste of money. They knew books are liberating and therefore free access is dangerous.
It’s unclear how popular funding for the arts and humanities is these days. A USA Today/Gallup Poll this month, before the State of the Union address, asked people whether they favor cuts in various government spending programs. Unfortunately, the poll lumped arts and sciences together, so the results are muddy. Still, 52 percent said they oppose cutting the arts and sciences. In contrast, 67 percent opposed cuts in education, and 64 and 61 percent opposed cuts in Social Security and Medicare respectively.
You could say the NEA and NEH exist because President Lyndon B. Johnson knew how to stroke the egos of politicians. The persuasive Johnson, father of the Great Society, told lawmakers, “This Congress will consider many programs which will leave an enduring mark on American life. But it may well be that passage of this legislation, modest as it is, will help secure for this Congress a sure and honored place in the story of the advance of our civilization.”
Presidents just don’t talk that way anymore. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama talked about education and jobs and making America competitive, but he didn’t reach for the rhetorical stars of advancing civilization. In fact he didn’t even mention culture or the arts.
During the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, many Americans are reflecting on his and first lady Jackie Kennedy’s focus on culture. Less than a month before he was assassinated, JFK said in a speech, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens.”
That’s one of the quotes engraved in the marble walls of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. Another is from his 1963 State of the Union address: “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”
Over the years, some of the decisions NEA and NEH have made have offended some. Culture wars have resulted in the endowments’ budgets waxing and waning. But the agencies have survived.
Livingston Biddle was chairman of NEA when Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. When Biddle learned Reagan’s transition team wanted to abolish NEA, Biddle named Reagan pals, actor Charlton Heston and brewer Adolph Coors, to an NEA task force. They persuaded Reagan to keep the agency, Biddle later wrote.
In 1997, faced with Republican calls to eliminate the NEA and NEH, President Bill Clinton said in his State of the Union address, “Instead of cutting back on our modest efforts to support the arts and humanities, I believe we should stand by them.”
That’s a message the current president needs to send loud and clear as Republicans once again fight federal support of the arts and humanities.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.