Could a 1.49% Raise for the NEA Ignite Political War?


A call-to-action email this week from the Performing Arts Alliance updates everyone on the work of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which approved budget increases of $2.5 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. If approved by Congress — and remember, this is only the start of budget season in this most charged of political years — the budget for both agencies would stand at $170 million.

The opening statement of the chair of the House Subcommittee, Rep. James Moran (D-VA), is worth the read. It notes that the proposed NEA and NHA budgets are, combined, $17 million above President Obama’s request. This could suggest a) wiggle room for lowering these numbers during the final budget negotiations and/or b) a lame way to inoculate the President against attacks — you know they’re coming as they’re already here — — that he’s the reason for overspending of the public purse.

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I have long predicted that the Republicans will try using the NEA (and its budget) as a political bludgeon, as part of a new kind of culture war. This being the season of political trial balloons, the Tea Party extremists and what passes for Republican moderates are all trotting out different lines of attack, looking for traction. So, no surprise, here comes a bit of anti-arts commentary from Ken Buck, the GOP candidate for the Senate from Colorado.

Who and what, you ask? The Colorado Independent reported on a story, originally published in the Durango Herald, in which Buck was asked how to rein in the federal budget. There’s plenty of red-meat radical-right rhetoric regarding the abolition of the Department of Education and doing the patent bob-dodge-weave over military expenditures. But those responses ranked second and third and fourth for the buck-stops-here Buck. Some other ideas came first, according to the transcript:

Durango Herald: What should be cut in the federal budget?

Buck: The National Endowment for the Arts. The National Endowment for Humanities. Subsidies for many programs – we’ve got to look at privatizing some programs. We’ve got to look at departments like the Department of Education and ask really what they should be doing and what we need to return to local control. The Department of Energy’s mission was to make America less reliant on foreign energy. That mission was set in 1977. We’re more reliant on foreign energy than we were before. So we’ve got to evaluate whether agencies and departments are really doing the job that we’ve set out for them.

Personally, I love that the Colorado Independent actually analyzed the facts (since no one, neither Republicans nor Democrats, are entitled to their own) and published their findings immediately below Buck’s answer:

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The problem is that cutting the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities doesn’t do much to the federal budget. The NEA had a $167.5 million budget for FY 2010, and President Obama requested $161 million for NEH. Put together, that’s $328.5 million out of a $3.7 trillion budget, or 0.0089 percent of the federal budget (and 0.023 percent of the federal budget deficit for FY 2010).

Now, if you don’t believe that Buck is trotting out a potential line of attack, if you don’t believe the Republicans might seize upon the NEA as a political football if they sense an electoral advantage, then welcome to the Neville Chamberlain Museum of the Arts. Enjoy your visit.

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Arts advocates, as I’ve said all along, should arm themselves for any contingency and not expect that budget raises for the NEA and NHA are guaranteed, assumed or to be taken for granted. That the proposed increase for the NEA budget is 1.49 percent does not mean that dizzying political hay will not or shall not result. End of lecture.

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The email I received from the Performing Arts Alliance included this boilerplate:

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The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee has approved a $2.5 million increase for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), bringing NEA funding to $170 million for FY 2011. Current funding for the agency totals $167.5 million. This is a noteworthy increase given the current discretionary spending freeze in place.

Through this increase, Rep. James Moran (D-VA), Chairman of the Subcommittee, has once again demonstrated his commitment in investing in our country’s cultural agencies. In his statement to the subcommittee, Chairman Moran noted “the increase recognizes the value we place, as a Nation, on our artistic and cultural heritage.” The increase represents the first step in the appropriations process, and performing arts advocates just like you need to call on their Senators and Representatives to support this increase as it makes its way through the House and Senate.

The Performing Arts Alliance invites you to be in touch with your Members of Congress today and communicate the value of the NEA to support the performing arts and your community. We have created a sample letter for you to personalize, as it is important to include information about you and organization when communicating with your legislators.

And this is the sample letter, should you wish to contact your representative(s) in Congress:

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Subject: Support an Increase for the National Endowment for the Arts for FY11

Dear [decision maker name automatically inserted here],

As your constituent and a performing arts advocate, I am writing to express my strong support for increased funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for FY 2011.

The NEA provides critical federal funding for performing arts organizations, encourages artistic achievement, and brings the performing arts to Americans in every corner of the country. Direct grants to performing arts organizations — and NEA support allocated through state arts agencies — expand public access to performances, preserve great classical works, and nurture the creative endeavors of performing artists nationwide.

The NEA has never fully recovered from a 40% budget cut in FY 1996 and all of its programs are seriously under-funded. Any additional monies over the NEA’s current budget of $167.5 million will ensure that the NEA continues to support arts organizations in all 435 congressional districts.

The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee has approved an increase of $2.5 million for the NEA for FY 2011, which brings the agency’s budget to $170 million. I urge you to support this increase for the NEA to restore and rebuild funding for the creation, preservation, and presentation of the arts in America through the NEA’s core programs — Access to Artistic Excellence, Challenge America: Reaching Every Community, Federal/State Partnerships, and Learning in the Arts.

A substantial funding increase would enable the NEA to support performing arts organizations in our community.

Thank you for your attention to his important matter. I look forward to your support.


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