Helms Attacks, NEA Braces For Battle

News   Helms Attacks, NEA Braces For Battle
 
The trenches are dug for the NEA fight, and the brickbats are flying across Congress.

The trenches are dug for the NEA fight, and the brickbats are flying across Congress.

On Monday, Sept. 15, Jesse Helms brought to the Senate floor the Jesse Helms / John Ashcroft bill, to eliminate the National Endowment For The Arts funding agency altogether. A spokesperson for the NEA told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 17), even if Helms/Ashcroft gets defeated, other bills tacked onto the HR-2017 appropriations bill could seriously hinder the agency:
Republican Senator Spencer Abraham (Michigan) is sponsoring a bill to transfer NEA money to the Smithsonian and Park Service, for such services as restoration of "The Star Spangled Banner."

Tim Hutchinson (Repub. Arkansas) would take 99 percent of NEA funding and give it directly to the states, saving the last 1 percent for the U.S. Treasury.

K. Bailey Hutchison (Rep. Texas) would give only 75 percent to the states, leave 5 percent to NEA administration, and save 20 percent for national grants."

Said the NEA spokesperson (Sept. 17), "Our position is to hope all the amendments wil be defeated and our basic bill, for $100 million budget, same as last year, would go through." The New York Times quoted Helms as saying of the Endowment, "It is self evident that many of the beneficiaries of NEA grants are contemptuous of traditional moral standards... phony, self-appointed artists who insist on using the American taxpayers' money to finance anything they want to drag up from the sewer and declare to be art."

Among those speaking on behalf of the Endowment have been Senators Barbara Boxer (CA) and Tom Harkin (IA).

The NEA says to expect 70 minutes of debate on the Helms/Ashcroft, then the other bills. "They want to finish today," said the NEA spokesperson, "so it might even go to midnight."

*

Here's the budget battle back-story:
Less than a year after Congress voted (Sept. 30, 1996) to approve a $99.5 million budget for the National Endowment For The Arts for fiscal 1997, attempts are underway to eliminate the organization entirely. John Doty, legislative assistant to pro-NEA Congressman Jerrold Nadler, told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 11), "The House first threatened to cut the budget down to $10 million, which would essentially turn the arts funding program into a non-entity. Now they've zeroed it out of the appropriations bill entirely."

That means Congress can either agree with the elimination (which Doty calls highly unlikely) or bring it to a joint House/Senate conference for debate. All the appropriations are supposed to be finished before Sept. 30.

A representative of the NEA's communications department, told Playbill On Line (Sept. 11) the NEA issue had not come up on the floor but would in the next day or two. Meanwhile, the Endowment continues its usual business: "We've recently announced the National Heritage Fellowships and are getting ready to announce the National Medal of Arts. And we're still sorting grant applications."

July 10, 1997, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 217-216 to shut down the embattled National Endowment for the Arts and replace it with grants to arts commissions and school boards in the individual states. The NEA's current $99.6 million budget would be slashed to $10 million (only enough to close down the agency) and be replaced by block grants totalling some $80 million under the House plan, proposed by Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.

Under the Gingrich plan, $30 million would go to state art commissions; $48 million to local school boards and $2 million would be spent on administrative costs. The plan, which passed by a single vote, must also be approved by the Senate and President Bill Clinton before it becomes law.

President Clinton had asked for an increase in 1998 to $136 million, and has said he will veto the Department of the Interior budget, which contains the $10 million to shut down the NEA, currently chaired by Broadway actress Jane Alexander.

According to Doty, efforts to help keep the NEA going include a proposal to increase the current 35 percent of the NEA budget divided among the states to 60 percent. Another proposal would officially authorize the NEA (it's been without authorization for some time), thus staving off attempts to destroy the organization on a minor point of order.

The NEA was a mainstay of non-profit theatres throughout the U.S. In the 1980s, and still helps support resident theatres, though its funding has been curtailed in recent years. Many in Congress believe the government should not be funding art.

Democratic congressman Sidney R. Yates (Illinois) told the Times he expects the Endowment to again receive $99 million. Countering the anti N.E.A. belief that the vast majority of funds go to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, Yates pointed to smaller organizations that help local communities. Yates told the Times, "Large arts institutions have lost one-third of their grants; everybody has to live with a third less, unfortunately." Yates could push for bigger arts budgets when Congress held a majority of Democrats (even under Reagan/Bush). He's still ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.

On the other side, Oklahoma Republican Steve Largent calls for the N.E.A.'s abolition, telling the times "It is wrong for the Government to be the gatekeeper for determining what is and what is not art. We're asking some people to do without while the government subsidizes the Metropolitan Opera."

Before the congressional vote, Broadway shows banded together to fight for the NEA. Each show had a cast member make a curtain speech urging the audience to participate in the lobbying effort. Scheduled to speak were Chicago's Joel Grey, Jekyll & Hyde's Robert Cuccioli and The Last Night of Ballyhoo's Dana Ivey. Other shows participating were Les Miserables, Cats, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, Tap Dogs, The King and I, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Smokey Joe's Cafe, Forever Tango, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Annie, Rent and Grease.

The event was being coordinated by The League of American Theatres and Producers, in partnership with ART/NY and Theatre Communications Group. The League is the national trade association for the theatre industry whose members include theatre owners and operators, producers, presenters and general managers of Broadway and touring legitimate theatrical productions in New York and cities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Jed Bernstein, Executive Director of the League, said at the time, "We are hopeful that our lobbying efforts will help to demonstrate to the Senate how important the NEA is to a wide cross-section of Americans."

Doty, legislative assistant for Rep. Nadler (the Congressman whose legislative district includes the Broadway theatre district), told Playbill On-Line in July that Nadler has been pushing the N.E.A. Appropriations issue since January. Alluding to an op-ed piece in the New York Times (July 8) by Alec Baldwin and Robert Lynch, Doty explained that each year for several years, the N.E.A. has been funded without official authorization. In other words, the Education and Workforce Committee of the House is supposed to approve a bill before it goes before the House and Senate. If they don't, a special waiver must be given to circumvent the lengthy process. Each year, this has been done for the N.E.A. bill. "But this year, the Rules Committee might not waive the rule," said Doty.

"The problem," said Doty, "is that Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Armey are very powerful. Armey has said, `As long as I am Majority Leader, I will not allow consideration of the authorization bill of the N.E.A.'"

"Fortunately," continued Doty, "there are moderate Republicans who'll vote for the Endowment."

Karyn Margolis, spokesperson for Democratic Congresswoman Carol Aey (of the 14th congressional district -- the East Side of NYC, as well as small parts of Brooklyn and Queens), told Playbill On-Line Maloney would fight very hard against the N.E.A. cuts.

Maloney, Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Senator Alfonse D'Amato appeared on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, July 1, to denounce the drastic cuts. "It's a cultural embarrassment that the wealthiest nation in the world would even consider completely defunding the arts," Maloney said in a statement faxed to Playbill On-Line. "The conservatives have targeted the N.E.A. For years because they say the organization is elitist, controversial and frivolous. But they overlook the many ways in which the N.E.A. Benefits our communities. I have a perfect example in my district - the Theatre For The New City, which uses its N.E.A. Grants to enrich the lives of our children" (with an after-school program for troubled youth). Maloney is in her third term as Congresswoman.

Yates told the Times, "I believe sincerely that the National Endowment For The Arts provides a necessary service in the social fabric of the country. It sustains the basic arts -- music, dance, theatre, individual efforts -- and if the antagonists win, I think there will be a big gap that won't be filled by private donations."

The NEA was a mainstay of non-profit theatres throughout the U.S. In the 1980s, and still helps support resident theatres, though its funding has been curtailed in recent years. Many in Congress believe the government should not be funding art. You can use the internet to contact government leaders to express your opinion for or against NEA funding.

Contact your Representative at http://www.igc.apc.org/eic/States.html.

Contact your Senator at http://www.yahoo.com/Government/Legislative_Branch/Senate/Senators/.

Contact President Bill Clinton at http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/Mail/html/Mail_President.html.

You can also visit the NEA website at http://arts.endow.gov/Homepage.html.

-- By David Lefkowitz

Today’s Most Popular News: