The Arts: A Congress Divided
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JIM LEHRER: Differences over the NEA in Congress are sharp between the House and Senate and between the two Republicans most in charge of the debate: Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, chairman of the House Subcommittee that oversees the NEA and Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, chairman of the Labor & Human Resources Committee, who guided the NEA reauthorization legislation through his committee today. Senator, why should there continue to be a National Endowment for the Arts?
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS, (R) Vermont, Chair, Labor & Human Resources Committee: Oh, I think the federal government has a role to play with the arts. It’s been very successful over the years that the Endowments have been in place.
It’s had its problems, but those problems have been minuscule compared to the great good it has done by allowing states, in particular, endeavors through their councils, but just as importantly, the national level, to allow different artists and different perspectives to come to the attention which wouldn’t come otherwise, except through the federal utilization of the Endowments, so I’m a big fan, and have seen it work very well, and I think we have taken corrective action to take care of those problems that have created a controversy.
JIM LEHRER: But generally speaking, Senator, you would say the NEA is a success at what it set out to do?
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: No question in my mind it’s been a success. Every nation has to have in the connection with the arts and to fulfill its destiny in society and to be able to be a leader in the world, people have to look at things other than the guns.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Congressman, you feel differently. Why?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, I think the federal support for the arts is clear. The oversight work that we’ve done clearly indicate that the National Endowment for the Arts, that component of federal support for the arts, is a small agency that really doesn’t work. It’s inefficient.
Twenty-five percent of every dollar that goes to the National Endowment for the Arts gets spent up in overhead, never makes it to the artist. About 30 percent of the money that they actually get to distributing goes to six cities. Another 25 percent goes just to the state in New York, so it’s an elite little organization. It doesn’t foster arts throughout America.
It fosters arts in a very specific locale, and it really doesn’t make a difference. The arts were thriving before the National Endowment for the Arts was established; they’re thriving now, and they will thrive if the National Endowment for the Arts goes away.
JIM LEHRER: And it should go away, in your opinion?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, I mean, in the House we’ve tried to reach a compromise that we’re going to fund and go directly to state agencies and put the money into education, K-12, because the state agency, the state block grants is where it works most effectively, and right now the National Endowment for the Arts does nothing directly to help arts and education, but that got defeated in the House. I think it’s a mistake to continue going with the National Endowment for the Arts the way that exists today.
JIM LEHRER: Sen. Jeffords, what about the congressman’s point, that it doesn’t work; that the money–you heard what he said–the money goes to only six–basically to six large cities and it doesn’t really foster the arts throughout the United States?
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: Well, I just don’t agree with that at all. First of all, I do agree with one thing, and I think there is too much that’s spent on administrative, and we would cut back on the administration cost, but it works as a national program–both two ways.
One, through the states, and their councils, which is a very well working program, and secondly, in individual grants for people that wouldn’t get help and wouldn’t be able to follow through and to produce the kind of art they have in the past if it were not with the help of the Endowments. And some of the best areas that art has flourished and especially in the low-income areas of our cities.
I’ve also seen programs like in New York City run by the Endowment that help with therapy for kids that have had–experienced traumatic events, and also the studies show that the arts increase the ability of our young people to get to college with–if you’re involved in the arts and you get a chance for a 59 percent increase in your SAT scores, these are the kind of things that the arts will do.
And the Endowments help make sure that those people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate be able to let the nation know about the duties that they can create, or the substance that they can give to the meaning of art would not occur without the Endowments in mind.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Congressman, do you dispute that?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Oh, yes. I’ll invite the Senator to come to my district, 143 other congressional districts around the country, where the arts industry, they’re thriving, 143 districts get no money directly from the National Endowment for the Arts and the arts are thriving. There’s no doubt that the arts are a positive influence in our society.
This debate is about one small agency that comprises only 5 percent of the total support that the federal government gives to the arts industry, which is a thriving, booming industry. This is just a little bureaucracy. It is not working very well and is not making a difference. It’s kind of the myth. It’s the myth that if you give an agency a nice name, give it a little–a few dollars, and it can claim success way beyond what the impact it’s actually having.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman, as a matter of philosophy, do you believe that the federal government has a role to play in supporting the arts?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: I think the role that we’re supporting the arts by giving tax deductibility, funding certain national priority projects, the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center, and those types of things, that’s the area where we should focus our dollars. We shouldn’t focus our dollars on trying to pick winners and losers in Vermont, winners and losers in Michigan, and giving certain artists the stamp of authority, of approval, and saying others, you don’t measure up. Now, let’s focus on national treasures, not trying to pick local winners.
JIM LEHRER: Individuals. Would you object to the NEA doing exactly what the Senator said, which is to fund small organizations or individual artists?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, actually, that’s not really where the money is going. The money is going to six cities. It’s going to a couple of states. It’s not going that much to individual artists. The most effective place where the money goes is the state block grants. If we keep anything, that’s where we go. But Washington picking individual artists I think is a mistake.
JIM LEHRER: Is that what this is about, Senator, Washington picking winners and losers?
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: No, I don’t believe so. It’s an opportunity for the other 400 districts that the congressman didn’t talk about, for individuals in those districts or groups in those districts to have an opportunity to participate; to have the funding necessary to bring forth their art, and not to be left to say whither away in areas that don’t have an opportunity.
I would agree that we should perhaps take a look at perhaps some of the areas, but it’s to the huge areas they offer things which are very popular with many, which you have problems in funding, and perhaps they should be cut back on or something, you can make that argument, but, on the other hand, the ability of every person in this nation to have an opportunity to get a grant, or when they are an artist who can’t find other support, it’s only available through the National Endowment.
JIM LEHRER: What about the congressman’s point, Senator, that that’s really small potatoes; that there’s so little money and so little effort that so few people are affected by what the NEA does?
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: Well, an artist that needs help needs very little help. But without it, they cannot flourish. It’s granted that some of the big symphonies and all would get more money, but remember how many are in those symphonies too, so, you know, it’s an argument. It’s a valid argument, but I think, overall, there’s no question but the Endowments have been a tremendous service to this nation.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman, the politics of this; you’ve got the majority, at least you won the last vote in the House by one vote. Now it’s gone to the Senate. Are you going to win this? The President said he’s going to veto it. Is this a symbolic fight on your part? That’s what I’m getting at, or is this a real one?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: I think it’s a real fight. If we put money back into the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m hoping and expecting that we put significant reforms into that legislation to handle some of the abuses that the National Endowment for the Arts has experienced over the last number of years, and if they’re going to get money, let’s distribute it equitably.
Let’s make sure that it does get to local areas; that it does get to rural areas, and doesn’t get concentrated in a few big cities and let’s make it available to all kids around the country and not just a few select areas.
JIM LEHRER: And do you have a plan to do that, to reform the NEA?
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, I think we have that one vote on the floor of the House that obviously now will go to conference committee. We’ll have to see whether–what comes out of the conference committee; we may do some work on reauthorizing a new type of NEA in the House later this year, and we’ll sit down with Sen. Jeffords and see if we can’t come to some bicameral conclusion as to where the NEA goes for the foreseeable future.
JIM LEHRER: But right now, Senator, you’re in the cat bird seat, is that right? In other words, you’re–the Senate version is probably going to prevail, am I right about that?
SEN. JIM JEFFORDS: Well, you’ve got to remember we have the appropriation process where the arts have survived and the Endowments have survived the last few years, and that’s where they’ll survive again this year. We will provide–and I talked to Sen. Stevens, the chairman, the appropriations committee, we will help provide them with guidance on what to do to make the system more efficient.
But it–they will survive, as they have in the last few years, through the appropriations process, probably at about the same level they have now. And I expect that we’ll be back here again in another year from now saying the same things, but I’ll be in the cat bird seat again.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Congressman, what are you going to do about that? It’s just going to go on and on.
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, it is going to go on until we take this agency, which is not very effective, it’s inefficient, and it’s unfair, until we correct that, you’re right, the debate will continue. I can see why the Senator and other people from the Northeast would like to continue this program. They get a disproportionate amount of the funds compared to the rest of the country, but we will continue waging this battle because the agency is not doing what it should be doing.
JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.
REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Thank you.