On the heels of the Trump administration's announcement to end federal spending on the National Endowment for the Arts, there is speculation that it may be saved by the intervention of Republicans — just as it was in 1995.
At a news conference last Thursday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was asked “if the Republican Congress sent the president line-item appropriation bills that fund CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] and NEA, will he veto those bills and tell the Republican leadership to send bills that defunds those things?”
“The message the president sent right now is that we want to defund those,” Mulvaney replied.
But old hands on Capitol Hill recalled how they had heard it all in 1994, after Republicans captured control of the House and Senate for the first time in four decades. For Republican House and Senate candidates, the campaign issue of denying tax funding to the NEA was fueled by widespread reports of the arts agency funding allegedly obscene works of art.
“Piss Christ,” a small crucifix submerged in urine in a glass, was one of several photographs exhibited in 1989 for which artist Jose Serrano received $15,000 for the work and $5,000 in 1986.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., spoke for many when he declared that if the NEA “wanted to write dirty words on bathroom walls, fine. But don’t use my tax dollars to pay for the crayons.”
In 1995, denying federal funds to the controversial agency appeared to be something the Republican Congress could do with ease. But the example of freshman Rep. Michael P. Forbes R-N.Y., showed that this was easier said than done.
Having campaigned against the NEA, Forbes quickly discovered that the agency had a lot of friends in his Long Island district. He recalled how actor Alec Baldwin and other arts enthusiasts who lived in his district “swarmed my town meetings just to make the case for the NEA.” Forbes eventually changed his position and supported funding for the agency (which was $167.4 million in Fiscal Year 1996, down from $170.2 million the previous year).
But even with Republicans such as Forbes changing their mind on the issue, the appropriations bill that includes the agency was finalized with “zero” dollars for the NEA. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich and then-Majority Leader Dick Armey weighed in to defund the NEA.
They had not reckoned on Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversaw the NEA. While Regula was angry with the NEA exhibits such as “Piss Christ,” he felt strongly that an arts agency was needed and deserved tax dollars. He insisted that no appropriations measure would see the light of day without money for the NEA. He got his wish.
“Mr. Regula was the key player in rescuing the NEA in 1995 and ’96,” his longtime top aide Lori Rowley told Newsmax. “He made sure it survived, albeit with greater accountability for its grants.”
By 2005, opposition to the NEA had all but evaporated among Republicans. President George W. Bush held a black-tie dinner at the White House celebrating the agency’s 40th anniversary.
With the NEA’s latest budget at $146 million, Republicans are again poised to end its funding of federal dollars. But the question remians: Will Republicans save the NEA?
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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