Arts funding saved in House

endowment budget unchanged

Republicans offer praise for longtime target

July 15, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- In a surprising break in the cultural wars, the House refused yesterday to cut further the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, and even came close to increasing funding for the arts agency.

The controversial agency, which the House voted to fund in 2000 at its current level of $98 million, has been a favorite conservative target for more than 10 years. But missing from yesterday's debate was the often-bitter rancor of years past.

The House defeated by 300-124 an amendment to cut the NEA budget by $2.1 million in the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The NEA is part of a larger $14 billion bill that funds the Interior Department and other agencies.

The chamber narrowly voted 217-207 against increasing the funding for the NEA and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities, by $10 million each. Many House members were leery of taking the $20 million from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to fund the agencies.

Still, such largely supportive votes would have been unthinkable as recently as last year when House leaders tried to fund the agency at zero.

NEA chairman William Ivey, credited with making the agency more responsive to critics' concerns, said: "The additional $10 million would have allowed the endowment to serve a greater number of communities across the country. While disappointed in the outcome, I am heartened by the closeness of the vote."

House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who has led the fight to eliminate the NEA, set the tone earlier in the week in a meeting with reporters. Noting that "I've been in these wars since 1985," Armey went on to praise Rep. Ralph Regula, a Ohio Republican and chairman of the subcommittee that funds the agency, for having "done a great deal to provide reform and accountability to the NEA."

Under fire and in danger of extinction, the agency underwent a series of reforms and checks on grants. Conservatives, galvanized by NEA support for such controversial artists as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, demanded the agency's elimination.

Congress has repeatedly trimmed the agency's budget since its peak of $176 million in 1992. In 1995, the newly elected Republican majority engineered a 40 percent cut in the agency's funding and termination of most individual grants in the agency's 1996 budget.

"I don't believe in government censorship or sponsorship of the arts," said Armey, who voted both to cut the agency's funding and against increasing it.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a New York Democrat, led the effort to increase the funding for the NEA and NEH. "The arts and humanities express who we are, who we were and who we hope to be," said Slaughter, who was supported by a large group of Republicans.

"It's a drop in the bucket, given our heritage, given our need," said California Republican Rep. Steve Horn.

Pub Date: 7/15/99

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