NEA Survives Act II; Final Curtain for Jane Alexander

Conservative lawmakers lost their latest bid to kill the National Endowment for the Arts in late October as the House and Senate passed an appropriations bill containing $98 million for the agency in fiscal 1998. The victory was not only a significant accomplishment for Chairperson Jane Alexander, who had been wrestling with Congress since early spring to keep the agency alive, but also something of a Capitol miracle (the House actually voted to kill the NEA entirely in mid-July).

The final wrangling began on June 17, when the House Interior Appropriations Sub-committee approved a bill by Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH) allocating $10 million for the NEA, to be used for the sole purpose of closing the agency down. But Rep. Sidney Yates (D-IL) offered an amendment which passed, removing the language specifying the money be used for closing the agency.

On July 10, House Republicans made good on a long-standing threat to table any discussion of NEA funding because the agency is not technically authorized to receive funds (its authorizing legislation expired three years ago). The House Rules Committee, which sets the terms of floor debate, introduced a “rule” which prevented restoring any NEA funds. (In years past, this had been a “protected rule,” which removed procedural restrictions and permitted funding.) Initially, there was not enough support to pass the rule, so the conservative leadership launched a flurry of parliamentary maneuvering and arm-twisting. Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) hastily offered an amendment to eliminate the NEA and cut arts funding to $80 million in block grants, with 60% going to local school boards (supposedly earmarked for arts education) and 40% going to local arts agencies. Many Republican moderates, like Connecticut’s Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson, who had long supported the NEA, abandoned the agency in hopes of both pleasing their leadership and being able to claim they had supported arts funding. Five Democrats—Gary Condit (CA), Gene Taylor (MS), James A. Traficant, Jr. (OH) and Ralph M. Hall and Charles W. Stenholm (TX)—also voted yes. But because 15 Republican moderates cast votes against the amendment, the drama continued. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) pulled Rep. Jim McHugh (R-NY), who had already voted against the rule, into the cloak room for a brief discussion. McHugh then actually changed his vote, tipping the scale in favor of the leadership, 217-216. Rep. Phil Crane (R-IL) raised a point of order, objecting to the appropriations bill because the NEA was not authorized to receive funding and the $10 million was immediately stripped from the bill. The Ehlers proposal itself, however, was resoundingly defeated, 271-155. This had the paradoxical effect of preventing the death of the NEA but killing all arts funding. The entire Interior Appropriations bill, with no NEA funding, was approved shortly thereafter by a vote of 238-192. In a rare moment of public pique, Alexander issued a statement saying, “The endowment deserved the opportunity today to receive a vote on its merits and did not get one due to party politics. We now look to the Senate for a fair debate and vote on the future of the agency.”

In an immediate challenge to the House, on July 22 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved continued NEA funding at the FY ’97 level of $99.5 million. On September 18, after defeating several Republican amendments designed to defund the agency, the Senate passed the Interior Appropriations Bill, including $98 million for the NEA. On September 30 the Senate-House conference committee agreed to fund the NEA at $98 million for FY ’98. Because conference committees are widely seen as compromise bodies, the final budgetary appropriation was widely anticipated to be somewhere in the middle, but Senate conferees, including James Jeffords (R-VT) and Slade Gorton (R-WA), held out and prevailed, scoring perhaps the NEA’s single biggest victory of the Congressional cycle.

While the funding level remains essentially unchanged, NEA rules and procedures are not. State allocations will increase from 35 to 40% and any single state cannot receive more than 15 percent of the NEA’s total budget (New York, for example, has received as much as 29% of NEA funds in the past). The NEA will now also be required to give priority to projects that encourage public knowledge, education, understanding, and appreciation of the arts and to grants benefiting underserved populations. Both the NEA and the NEH now have statutory authority to solicit and invest funds from the private sector, something for which Alexander and other chairpersons had been calling for years. Finally, perhaps the most telling change in NEA operations, the National Council on the Arts was reduced in size from 26 to 20, and changed to include, for the first time, six members of Congress. Although proponents of this change maintain that Congressional members will serve only as ex-officio, non-voting members, the NEA will have its work cut out making sure they do not affect the grant-making process.

Having secured the endowment’s survival, Chairperson Jane Alexander resigned her post on October 8, four years after she took office. (At press time, Alexander’s successor had not been chosen.) Before leaving, Alexander unveiled the final report of one of her major initiatives, “American Canvas: an Arts Legacy for Our Communities.” The report (available at www.artsendow.gov) contends artists and institutions are somewhat responsible for the increasing alienation between the arts and the public and that such “elitism” had helped make recent cuts in federal funding possible. The very use of the word “elitism” has caused some arts professionals to worry that the report itself will give new credence to the criticism leveled by Congressional critics during the budget process.

Alexander’s tenure was marked by severe budget cuts, staff reductions, increased Congressional restraints on grant-making, and many difficult decisions. Some of her policies, including the reorganization of the agency and streamlining of its rules, did not endear her to artists and institutions. Nevertheless, Alexander’s fearless stewardship, which came under the harshest, most well-planned attacks on the NEA in years, was a primary factor in the agency’s survival. She leaves behind an NEA that, while alive and funded, is perhaps more embroiled in politics than ever.

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