From The Coalition Column in the April 2013 issue of Perspectives on History

Humanities Facing Cuts across the Board, Again

Lee White, April 2013

I am sure many of you remember the epic battle in 1975 between then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and former champion Joe Frazier known as the "Thrilla in Manila." For 14 brutal rounds, Ali and Frazier pummeled each other. At the end of the 14th round, Frazier's handlers threw in the towel, ending the fight and giving Ali the victory. Unbeknownst to Frazier's corner, Ali was telling his handlers that he didn't want to come out for the 15th round and he was shocked when he learned he had won. Neither fighter was ever the same. In fact, Ali later said it was the closest he had ever come to dying in the ring.

I'm reminded of this bout while watching the ongoing fight over the federal budget. It looks as if House Republicans and President Obama have reached the point of exhaustion in their long-running battle over federal spending, taxes, and entitlement reform. But both sides still refuse to throw in the towel in this (pardon the pun) "Thrilla on the Hilla."

The satirical online newspaper The Onion recently had a story that read, "Obama, Congress Must Reach Deal on Budget by March 1. And then April 1. And then April 20. And then April 28, And then May1, along with agreements twice a week, every week for the next four years. In 2014, there will need to be 4,562 budget deals." While sometimes it may seem that bad, there have in fact been nearly a half-dozen budget battles between the White House and congressional Republicans over the past two years.

The first was the spat over the federal budget. Each side has used the threat of a government shutdown to pummel the other. The inevitable result has been repeated rounds of Washington's favorite sport, kicking the can down the road. In early March, Speaker John Boehner and President Obama both expressed their desire to avoid a government shutdown when the current continuing budget resolution, which keeps the government open, expires on March 27. It appears that both parties have tentatively agreed to a continuing resolution that would run until the end of the fiscal year—September 2013.

Adding to the mess is the fact that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has not yet submitted the administration's proposed fiscal 2014 budget to Congress. By law, the president is supposed to submit his budget to Congress on the first Monday in February. However, there is no enforcement mechanism and it appears that the administration will submit the fiscal 2014 budget sometime around March 25. So Congress will already be two months behind schedule in considering next year's budget!

These latest maneuverings come on the heels of the imposition of mandatory, across-the-board cuts in federal agency funding known as "sequestration." Sequestration generally imposes a 5 percent cut on nondefense discretionary funding for the remainder of fiscal 2013. Government-wide, the cuts amount to $85 billion. For now it appears the sequestration will remain intact at least in the short term.

How does that affect agencies important to the historical community? In early March, the administration released the funding levels these agencies should expect once the budget numbers have been crunched. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) would see its budget cut by $19 million to a level of $356 million. The National Endowment for the Humanities budget for grants and administration would be reduced by $7 million to $140 million. National Park Service history and preservation programs would be cut to $101 million. The Library of Congress' budget would be reduced by $21 million to $395 million. The Institute of Museum and Library Services' budget would be $221 million, down from $233 million. For agencies that have already seen their budgets reduced over the past few years, these cuts are likely to result in cutbacks in services to the public.

Confused yet? Hold on, because I haven't even mentioned the debt limit ceiling, which is the final leg in this three-legged stool. Congress has postponed dealing with that issue until sometime in May. So yet another budget land mine awaits.

Is the inclusion of the sequester in the continuing resolution just a temporary truce? Or will the Republicans and Democrats come out bruised and battered for the 15th round? Will the White House and congressional Republicans finally settle their differences and reach a "Grand Bargain" of spending cuts, tax increases, and entitlement reform that seemed within the president's and Speaker Boehner's grasp last year? At this point, both sides have gotten something of what they started out to achieve. President Obama got the Republicans to blink on taxes at the end of 2012. And now the Republicans have the gotten mandatory cuts in federal programs they wanted.

As I've watch this madness unfold over the past few years, I've often thought of Henry Clay. In his time he was known as "The Great Compromiser." In today's Washington that would be considered a slur, not a compliment. Until that attitude changes, or the public finally demands that it change at the ballot box, I fear we will continue to inch toward that world satirically painted by The Onion.

Lee White is the executive director of the National History Coalition.