Publication Date

March 1, 1995

National Endowment for the Humanities Faces Major Cuts or Possible Abolishment

The House Republicans' "Contract With America" recommends major reductions for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and some members of both the House and Senate are now questioning whether there needs to be federal funding of the humanities. When Congress established the endowments for the humanities and the arts in 1965 it recognized that humanistic studies are central to the very idea of a civilized, democratic society. Thus Congress determined that humanistic studies should be a national priority and deserved federal support. This year, with a budget of $177 million, the NEH has supported a wide range of programs that promote the best of teaching, research, and public programming in the humanities. Attempts to pass reauthorization legislation for the NEH failed in the 103rd Congress; however, the NEH was funded in fiscal 1994 and fiscal 1995 without authorization.

On January 4, Representative Sidney Yates (D-Ill.) introduced H.R. 100, a bill to authorize appropriations for fiscal 1996 and fiscal 1997 for the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965. It is most doubtful that the new Congress will allow appropriations to be made without authorization legislation. Without passage of reauthorization legislation, the NEH could cease to exist after September 30, 1995. Thus the role of the authorization oversight committees, which have the responsibility for passing reauthorization legislation, are extremely important. The House oversight committee for the NEH is the Economic and Educational Opportunity Committee, chaired by Representative Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), with the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families, chaired by Representative Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), taking the lead role on the NEH. The Senate oversight committee for the NEH is the Labor and Human Resources Committee, chaired by Senator Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kans.), with Senator James Jeffords (R-Vt.) chairing the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and the Humanities. The two appropriations subcommittees are the House Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, chaired by Representative Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, chaired by Senator Slade Gorton (R-Wash.).

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies held a hearing on January 24 on the national arts and humanities endowments. Reflecting the high visibility of the debate over the future of the endowments, almost all members of the subcommittee attended. In a packed hearing room, five witnesses addressed the basic question of whether there should be federal funding for the arts and humanities. Two former chairs of the NEH—Lynne Cheney of the American Enterprise Institute and William Bennett of Empower America—and Edward Delattre of the School of Education of Boston University called for an end to federal funding for the endowments. A summary of Cheney's testimony appeared in an opinion piece in the January 24 edition of the Wall Street Journal. All three cited examples of what they considered inappropriate grants and stressed that as government downsizes and as new priorities are developed for a smaller budget, there is no longer money to support scholars and artists, who represent elites.

In the question-and-answer period, Representative Yates stressed the many positive things that the endowments had accomplished. Representative Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) questioned Cheney on the discrepancies between her positive statements about the NEH a few years ago and her current negative position. Representative David Skaggs (D-Colo.) asked Bennett to be more precise about his claims of "massive corruption" at the NEH in the practice and products of the humanities. Political correctness, Bennett claimed, with its emphasis on such ideologies as feminism, had corrupted scholarship. Cheney also laid blame for the poor state of current scholarship on postmodernism, which she said had tossed objectivity to the winds. Delattre stated that "in many instances federal funds by the endowments have militated against both intellectual quality and the public interest." There was some discussion of the National History Standards. Cheney responded to a question from Representative George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) by saying that at this time the state of the study of history in higher education is such that she did not believe that any national group of historians would be able to promulgate standards that the committee could accept. Skaggs, however, noted that in her testimony on the history standards Cheney had picked examples out of context and had distorted the standards.

The last two witnesses, actor Charlton Heston and Frank Hodsell, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) under the Reagan administration, made strong statements in support of the NEA and the NEH. Both acknowledged that there had been mistakes, but Hodsell estimated the mistakes at about 1 percent of the total number of grants made, which he said was a much better performance rate than that of most corporations. Heston refuted the notion that the endowments are for the elite and talked about how the NEA had nourished regional theater and brought the arts to ordinary people across the country. He stated that if the NEH and the NEA are abandoned, the United States would be the only industrial democracy in the world that does not provide support for its culture. In closing, Heston quoted eloquently from Shakespeare to make the point that the arts and humanities are fundamental to the fabric of American life. Hodsell asserted that arts and humanities are as important to the national life as science and that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made mistakes that cost millions of dollars, yet no one suggests that NSF be abolished.

Members of House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies are Ralph Regula, chair; Bob Livingston (R-La.); Joseph McDade (R-Pa.); Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.); Joe Skeen (R-N.Mex.); Barbara Vucanovich (R-Nev.); Charles Taylor (R-N.C.); George Nethercutt; Jim Bunn (R-Ore.); Sidney Yates; David Obey (D-Wis.); Norman Dicks (D-Wash.); Tom Bevill (D-Ala.); and David Skaggs.

History Standards Attacked in Senate but Finally Dropped from Bill

On January 18 Senator Gorton introduced an amendment to S. 1, the Federal Unfunded Mandates Bill, that would prohibit funding for the National History Standards. Stating that no federal funds shall be awarded to the National Center for History in the Schools, the Senate amendment further stated that the voluntary standards in history "that are established under title II of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act should not be based on standards developed by the National Center for History in the Schools." The amendment concluded with the following statement: "If the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or any other Federal agency provides funds for the development for the standards and criteria described in paragraph (1), the recipient of such funds should have a decent respect for United States history's roots in western civilization."

Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-N.Mex.), James Jeffords, Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) argued against the amendment, noting that such legislation is premature, for efforts are currently underway to address criticisms of the standards, and Jeffords noted that the amendment had not been subject to any hearings or review by the committee of jurisdiction. "For us to step in and derail this process," Jeffords said, "makes no good sense."

The subject of the amendment was the release in October of National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience, the guidebook of proposed national standards for teaching United States history, which was developed by the National Center for History in the Schools at UCLA. Following criticism of the guidebook from Lynne Cheney and others, Gary Nash, professor of history at UCLA and codirector of the National Standards Project, met on January 12 with critics to listen to their views and to continue a commitment to a process of openness and consensus building. Much of the criticism has been directed at the examples used and not at the standards themselves. Part of the standards deal with historical thinking skills. Another part, content standards, covers such basics as “the causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interest involved in forging the revolutionary movement, and the reasons for the American victory” and “the origins and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs.”

In the course of the debate, Senators Gorton, Bingaman, and Jeffords agreed to a compromise that involved shifting the amendment language from statutory status to a resolution. The final language, stated in terms of a resolution that expresses the sense of the Senate but lacks the enforceability of a law, was a partial victory for supporters of the process of establishing voluntary standards. While the language was indeed very negative, it is a resolution that has no teeth. The vote on the resolution amendment passed 99 to 1. In subsequent debate, the Senate voted to strip the Federal Unfunded Mandates Bill of all extraneous provisions. Thus the history standards resolution was dropped from the Senate bill and was never considered as a part of the House bill.

As a result of the negative attention in the Senate on the history standards, there was considerable pressure on the NEH, which had funded the development of the standards, to denounce them. In response to questions about the position of the NEH on the National History Standards, Sheldon Hackney, chair of the NEH, issued the following statement on January 19: "It is completely inappropriate for the National Endowment for the Humanities to dictate, endorse, or dissent from any of the model national standards being produced by various groups. Our role was to assist financially in the nonpartisan process of developing some of those guidelines for further public discussion, review, and ultimate decision by state and local school authorities. I must say, in the case of the history standards, the way some people have politicized the discussion is a real disservice to the nation; the discussion has become more of a `drive-by debate' than a thoughtful consideration. School reform is much too important to be made a hostage in the culture wars."

Confusion Reigns at the Office of the Historian of the House of Representatives

Confusion reigns at the Office of the House Historian as plans for the future of the office seem to change weekly. At the end of December, Raymond W. Smock, the historian of the House of Representatives, and the members of his staff received notices that they would lose their jobs. It appeared that the office was to be dismantled as a part of Republican streamlining; the historical function of the House of Representatives would be transferred to the Library of Congress. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran articles with pictures of Smock packing boxes to close down the office.

Yet on January 4, during opening ceremonies for the 104th Congress, House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced that Christina Jeffrey, assistant professor of political science at Kennesaw State College in Georgia, would be the new House historian. Kennesaw State College, located in Gingrich's district, is where Gingrich has taught his course, "Renewing American Civilization." Jeffrey provided support for his efforts to videotape the course and use satellites to offer the course at schools across the country. But Jeffrey's tenure as House historian was brief. Less than a week after announcing her appointment, Gingrich dismissed her. She had become a political liability because of widespread criticism and national attention to objections she had made in 1986 to a proposed Holocaust curriculum because she said it did not include the views of the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

The Office of the Historian is still in existence but leaderless. Some members of Congress as well as leaders in the historical profession have urged a national search by a bipartisan committee to be undertaken for the selection of a qualified historian to head this office.

Smithsonian Cancels Enola Gay Exhibit

On January 30, following a Smithsonian Board of Regents meeting, I. Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian, announced plans to cancel the originally planned exhibit, The Final Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II, which was slated to open this spring. Instead the Smithsonian plans to display the fuselage of the Enola Gay aircraft, the B-29 that dropped the bomb 50 years ago, with a small plaque and possibly a videotaped interview with the flight crew. This action came in response to a letter signed by 81 members of Congress, 69 Republicans and 12 Democrats, that sharply criticized the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s proposed Enola Gay exhibit. The members of Congress called for Martin Harwit, the director of the museum, to be fired, the exhibit to be cancelled, and oversight hearings to be held. The Washington Post quoted Representative Peter Blute (R-Mass.) as saying: “We think there are some very troubling questions in regard to the Smithsonian, not just with this Enola Gay exhibit but over the past 10 years or so, getting into areas of revisionist history and political correctness. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.” Representative William Clinger (R-Pa.), who chairs the House Government Operations Committee, indicated that oversight hearings on the exhibition will be held, and Senator Bob Dole (R-Kans.) has called for hearings in the Senate. Just a few days prior to the regents meeting, Newt Gingrich appointed Representative Sam Johnson (R-Tex.), one of the major critics of the Enola Gay exhibit, to fill one of the vacant seats on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents.

Several days before the regents meeting, three leaders of the Organization of American Historians (OAH)—Eric Foner, the immediate past president, Gary Nash, the current president, and Michael Kammen, the president-elect—responded to the escalating conflict with a letter to the Honorable William H. Rehnquist, chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. The letter urged the regents not to cancel the forthcoming exhibition, stating, "We are concerned about the profoundly dangerous precedent of censoring a museum exhibition in response to political pressures from special interest groups." The OAH leaders went on to point out that cancelling the exhibit "would send the explicit message that controversial subjects cannot be examined openly as a part of our democratic civic life." Where there is already consensus, they noted, "there is the least need for the presentation of information and the opportunity for members of our diverse society to be educated and formulate opinions."

Personnel Issue Resolved at the National Archives

After over two years of review, a personnel issue at the National Archives concerning Claudine Weiher, former deputy archivist, has been resolved, and she has been cleared of allegations against her. The issue arose in October 1992 when the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs issued a report entitled "Serious Management Problems at the National Archives and Records Administration." In a series of recommendations the Senate committee urged further review of the management at the National Archives. Don Wilson, then the U.S. Archivist, responded by writing to the chair of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency and indicating that he would welcome a thorough review. In April 1993, the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency recommended further action on some of the issues. In November the Department of Justice found, as stated in a National Archives memorandum, that "Ms. Weiher's actions did not constitute grounds for any charge of misconduct or for any disciplinary action." She has been reinstated to a senior executive service position and is currently the special assistant to the assistant archivist for policy and information resources management.

Presidential Libraries

Richard Jacobs, a longtime National Archives employee who has headed both the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the presidential libraries, has been given an interim appointment as acting assistant archivist for presidential libraries. Recently, James Hemphill was appointed deputy assistant archivist for the presidential libraries. In reporting in November on the early retirement of Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries John Fawcett, there was no intention of implying that his resignation was other than voluntary.

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