NEA's fate appears headed for rewrite Shifting politics, lobby for arts community make demise unsure

April 06, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Were it all to unfold according to script, the curtain would soon be falling on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Condemned as a tool of liberals and elitists and a champion of taxpayer-financed pornography, the arts endowment was a gleaming bull's-eye for the cost-cutting conservatives of the last Congress. Two years ago, Republican leaders vowed to wipe out any trace of it by this fall.

But today, because of shifting political winds and an arts community that learned to campaign with sophistication and a sprinkling of stardust, the death scene hardly seems certain.

In fact, Congress has extended so much goodwill to the endowment recently that conservatives face an uphill battle to kill it. And as it becomes embroiled in the budget battle on Capitol Hill, an agency so tiny that its place in the federal budget can barely be seen with the naked eye is taking on enormous importance.

The $99 million agency -- cut from $168 million in 1994 -- has become a symbol of the split between moderates and conservatives, a microcosm of the debate over government's role and, if the conservatives have their way, a litmus test for lawmakers.

"This is make-or-break time for the leadership," said Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, which opposes the NEA. "It will tell us if they can keep any promises at all to the voters. If they now go back on their promise, it will mean a complete retreat and a sign that the leadership wasn't serious about truly trying to control government growth."

Opposition less fervent

With such a gantlet being thrown down by conservatives, the NEA's survival is nowhere near assured. But there is much less fervor now to kill a 32-year-old agency that awards grants to cultural endeavors ranging from symphony orchestras to urban youth programs to avant-garde art.

Newt Gingrich had such a pleasant meeting with Alec Baldwin and his fellow celebrity NEA activists a few weeks ago that the House speaker invited them to join him for dinner this month. Another NEA opponent, Rep. Frank Riggs, a California Republican, said he only recently discovered that the endowment helped fund the Washington Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" that his daughter appeared in, and would now keep an open mind about federal funding of the arts.

And after cordial hearings in the House last month in which the NEA's chairwoman, actress Jane Alexander, urged further funding, Majority Leader Dick Armey said he did not think he had the votes to eliminate the agency.

"A lot of members of Congress are beginning to understand this is important to constituents," Alexander said in an interview. "Their constituents are beginning to make their voices heard."

Indeed, in many respects, the arts lobby's success in rallying support and turning around the mood in Congress is no surprise at all but rather an illustration of the staying power of federal programs.

"The NEA is a case study in how federal agencies take on a life of their own," said Marshall Wittmann, a lobbyist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Fighting for survival

For every program or agency, there is a special-interest group or constituency ready to spring into action whenever funding is threatened. In this case, that special interest rallied faster and with more spirit than in a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland barn production.

"They just got more aware that they needed to do what everybody else does in Washington when they want a piece of the federal pie -- go out and fight for it," said Dick Woodruff, the chief NEA lobbyist.

In the past two years, that fight has included old-fashioned visits, phone calls and telegrams to Congress, as well as such modern tools as political action committees, Internet sites and polling data.

"I think we will prevail," said Rep. Rick A. Lazio of New York, a moderate Republican who has taken the lead in defending the agency in the House. "But we will not prevail by happenstance or benign fortune."

After the 1994 election -- when newly elected conservatives in their zeal to shrink government vowed to "zero out" the NEA, as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- arts organizers united to form the Cultural Advocacy Group. They set up an 800 number, which was announced on the Grammy Awards telecast and in ads in the New York Times, that people could call to have telegrams sent to members of Congress.

Robert Lynch, director of Americans for the Arts, an umbrella organization of local groups, said the effort produced 300,000 calls and telegrams to Capitol Hill in the past two years.

Shrewd campaign

The NEA advocates armed their troops with "talking points" and polling data: The $36 billion nonprofit arts industry supports 1.3 million jobs and returns $3.4 billion to federal tax coffers each year; according to a Harris Poll, 57 percent of the public favors federal funding of arts; every NEA dollar leverages up to $12 more in private funding.

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