In what has become practically an annual ritual, the House of Representatives passed the 1994 Interior Appropriations Bill in mid-July after staving off an amendment that would have eliminated the National Endowment for the Arts entirely–but not before adopting a measure to reduce the agency’s budget by five percent. The initial recommendation by the Clinton Administration to freeze the agency’s funding at last year’s level, along with the budgets of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum Services, was approved by the House Interior Appropriations Committee in late June before being sent to the House floor for a full vote. But by the time the floor debate was over, the proposed $175 million was reduced by a $8.7-million cut to $166.2 million, and at press time the agency’s appropriation awaited its fate in the Senate.
Shortly before the floor debate was scheduled to begin, Martin Mawyer, president of the right-wing Christian Action Network, sent a letter to all freshmen members of Congress, urging them to “strike all funding for the NEA.” Mawyer cited an exhibit entitled “Abject Art,” currently running at the Whitney Museum in New York, and quoted from the exhibit’s catalog that “|abject art’…confront[s] taboo issues of gender and sexuality…which is often deemed inappropriate by a conservative dominant culture.” He claimed that the display was mounted with NEA funds, but the agency denied the statement, clarifying that they have funded the Whitney for a variety of programs but not for this exhibit.
Debate on the appropriations bill in the full House began with consideration of an amendment offered by Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) to eliminate the NEA entirely an amendment he as proposed for the past three years. Crane supported his assertion that private funding is more than sufficient to support the arts with erroneous “statistics,” reporting that private giving to arts and culture increased in 1992 by 18 percent over the prior year and attributing the information to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel’s “Giving USA” survey, apparently overlooking the decimal point in the survey’s actual 1.8 percent statistic. After statements opposing the amendment and supporting full funding of the NEA by Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) and other advocates, the Crane amendment was defeated by a 105-to-322 vote.
The amendment to reduce the NEA budget by five percent, proposed by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), did not fail, however. The congressman who had offered another successful amendment during last year’s appropriation debate that froze NEA funding at the prior year level rather than supporting a modest committee-approved increase argued for the cut both in reaction to the Christian Action Network letter and as a means of federal deficit reduction. The amendment was passed by 240 to 184.
Formulas for funding
Meanwhile, the process for reauthorization of the NEA, NEH and IMS–the periodic extension of the agencies’ authorizing legislation–continued on schedule throughout the early summer, though not without its own drama. The House Labor Management–Relations Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), discussed the Administration proposal to reauthorize the NEA, NEH and IMS for two years with no substantive changes to the existing legislation at a June 17 hearing, noting that the two-year extension would give Congress the opportunity to more fully review the agencies–particularly the NEA’s implementation of the 1990 reauthorization bill, which included the current “decency” language as well as new formulas for state funding and procedures for panel selection.
The following week, the subcommittee approved a simple two-year reauthorization. Rep. Steve Gunderson’s (R-Wisc.) amendment to deny any state arts agency an increase in its NEA basic grant if the state’s legislature reduced its previous year’s appropriation failed by a 13-to-7 vote, but raised much interest and discussion. Gunderson accused many states of using the increase in federal dollars from the NEA, as legislated during the last reauthorization three years ago, to “offset reductions in their own funding for the arts,” noting that “it was not our intention to shift the burden of funding state arts programs from the states to the federal government.”
At the full Education and Labor Committee markup one week later, the two-year extension was passed, and two amendments introduced by Rep. Richard Armey (R-Tex.) one to eliminate the agency and the other to increase NEA funding to state arts agencies to 65 percent were soundly defeated. However, Rep. Gunderson offered a similar amendment to the one that lost in subcommittee that was expected to be approved, but instead it was once again defeated in the full committee, 24-to-18, when the committee resorted to partisan politics. Although Rep. Williams had indicated support for the slightly modified amendment before the committee vote, he opposed it during the committee mark-up, as did most of the Democrats on the committee, stating that penalizing the states would have unintended negative consequences and would set an unhealthy precedent. A heated debate followed after it became apparent that Williams would not back the amendment, with Republicans suggesting that the Democrats reneged on a deal, Williams characterizing the Gunderson amendment as a “Rube Goldberg” provision and ranking Republican William Goodling (R-Penn.) wondering if committee Democrats and Republicans could work together.
At press time, neither the full House of Representatives nor the Senate had taken up the reauthorization bill.
NEA Four get settlement
In early June, nearly three years after the “NEA Four” were denied NEA funding, their lawsuit against the agency was settled out of court after discovery in the case revealed that both White House chief of staff John Sununu and President Bush had pressured NEA chairman John Frohnmayer to deny controversial grants, and the decision was made for political rather than artistic reasons. The four performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tom Miller–each will receive their original grants, ranging from $5,000 to $8,000, as well as $6,000 each in compensatory damages and $202,000 in legal fees and litigation costs a total settlement amount of $252,000.
This settlement is a complete victory for the artists and a reaffirmation of the importance of keeping partisan politics out of arts funding and other federal programs that support expression,” said Marjorie Heins of the American Civil Liberties Union, who served as co-counsel for the artists. “The government now recognizes that the four artists were, and are, entitled to the grants that were denied by John Frohnmayer [in 1990] in response to the massive political pressure that was being applied by right-wing ideologues in Congress, the media and the White House itself.”
Correspondence between President Bush and Frohnmayer, released by the artists’ attorneys after the settlement was reached, include a note signed by the president after the Washington Times described details of the recommended grants. “I do not want to see censorship, yet I don’t believe a dime of taxpayer’s [sic] money should go into art’ that is clearly and visibly filth,” Bush wrote. “I was shocked by the examples cited in a recent Washington Times story…. We have to find a way to preserve the independence and creativity of the arts, yet at the same time, see that in egregious cases such as those mentioned above, the taxpayer will not subsidize filth and patently blasphemous material.”
The settlement did not address the part of the lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the NEA language requiring that grants be given only to work that conforms to “general standards of decency”a challenge that was upheld in June 1992 by Judge A. Wallace Tashima, who said in his decision, “The fact that the exercise of professional judgment is inescapable in arts funding does not mean that the government has free rein to impose whatever content restrictions it chooses…. The right of artists to challenge conventional wisdom and values is a cornerstone of artistic and academic freedom.”
The Department of Justice, which had appealed the ruling in March, filed its reply brief in late June, continuing to defend the constitutionality of the “decency language” and to criticize the Tashima ruling. Arts supporters across the country expressed shock and disappointment that the Clinton Administration was continuing to press the case. The next step in the case is the scheduling of the oral argument, which had not been done by press time.