Reps. Allen and Shimkus
July 30, 1997
in this forum:
What are the chances for the Freshmen Reform Bill? Is the NEA funding or censoring art? Is there support for real campaign reform? How should we deal with the NEA bureaucracy? Shouldn't there just be more disclosure of campaign sources?
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A question from Ron Thomas of New York, NY:
As a(n unsuccessful) playwright, I've often gone to small, hole-in-the-wall theaters and seen some bewildering material, noting that it was funded, in part, by the NEA. I've wondered why this material warranted my tax dollars. But then I note that the NEA has provided seed money for some very good work. Taking the bad with the good helps the flow of ideas and keeps us challenged. So, while my opinion for the NEA's judgment is not without reservation, I would vote to continue it. I would not assume that it is overfunded, underfunded or funded at just the right level; that would require scrutiny of information that I don't have. (I've never applied for a grant, by the way, and don't intend to.)
Let's not fund it, however, by giving the money to the states. "Bureaucracy" has been turned into a dirty word. But administration of programs is necessary. We should not keep throwing money to the states -- whether that money is for welfare or the arts. We would replace one bureaucracy with fifty. There is no guarantee that the states can do a better job than a centralized bureau.
Rep. Shimkus responds:
For years Congress has warned, cajoled and pleaded with the NEA to clean up its act and stop funding obscene and objectionable art whose purpose often seemed to be offending the very people who funded it, the American taxpayers.
In response to the infamous "Piss Christ" and Mapplethorpe photos, Congress in 1990 banned the NEA from financing projects which were obscene, sadomasochistic or homoerotic. However, the ban was ignored by the agency and subsequently replaced by a requirement that the NEA judge applicants by "general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public." These common-sense restrictions were later struck down by the courts as unconstitutional for violating the free speech rights of artists who apply for NEA grants.
The only way to prevent the NEA from misusing taxpayer dollars, therefore, appears to be to defund the entire agency and close it down. Many opponents of the way the NEA operates and I, however, fear that this would be throwing out the baby with the bath water. Therefore, I supported a compromise amendment offered by Representative Ehlers (R-Michigan) which would have closed the NEA in Washington while at the same time continue the federal commitment to arts funding. The Ehlers Amendment would have provided 37 percent of funding to state arts commissions, mainly for support of local symphonies, distributed to states based on population, and 60 percent directly to schools for arts and music classes on a per capita basis. Only 3 percent would be spent on administrative costs, far less than the approximately 20 percent which the NEA bureaucracy consumes in administration.
I believe that this approach is better than continuation of the NEA in its current for. In addition to providing funding for legitimate art, this plan will provide more funding for most of the country by distributing funds based on population. The NEA funding pattern consistently appropriated a disproportionate amount to major cities such as New York and San Francisco, which already have thriving arts communities. This plan would more fairly distribute funding of the arts throughout the country, which will benefit areas like Illinois' 20th District.
Rep. Allen responds:
I believe that the arts and humanities are vital to our free society as the incubators of open expression and intellectual creativity.
As to the NEA's administration, I repeat what I said in answer to the previous NEA question. The NEA attempts to provide seed money without censorship and control. The NEA is not perfect. We must work to improve it. But 45 controversial grants out of over 112,000 awarded during the past 30 years is a pretty good record.
I agree with Ron about block grants to states. The NEA effectively keeps politics out of arts funding. I opposed the amendment proposed by Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) to eliminate the NEA but provide $80 million in block grants to state arts agencies and public and private schools for art programs. My apprehension is that this would lead to inequities among the way the states treat the arts and artists.
The Senate has voted to maintain funding for the NEA and President Clinton has threatened to veto the Interior Appropriations bill if it does not fund the NEA. I am hopeful that we will at least be successful keeping the NEA at current funding levels.