Publication Date

January 1, 1997

For supporters of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the 1996 elections did not produce the dramatic results many had hoped for. Virtually all of the agency's most vociferous detractors are slill in office and likely to continue to oppose efforts to restore the agency to pre-1995 levels. Nonetheless, the "messages from the voters" are being interpreted by many of the most reliable pundits as calling for both more cooperation between the parties and more attention to strengthening education. Both of these outcomes, if they occur, could be advantageous to the NEH. However, given the ways in which the politics of the culture wars have played out in Washington, a positive GOP-Democratic leadership concord on the future of the endowment does not appear to be particularly likely at this time. Likewise, the era of good feeling between President Clinton and the GOP congressional leadership is looking extraordinarily fragile only a few weeks after the election.

Although the process may not be as rough and tumble in the 105th Congress as it was in the 104th for the NEH and its sister agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the lack of formal authorization leaves these agencies in a very vulnerable position. Probably the most immediate problem to resolve will be how the House of Representatives handles the question of agreements reached within the GOP caucus in the last Congress on phasing out the arts endowment. None of the phaseout provisions were enacted into law, but they are included in the report language that accompanied appropriations, and the leadership, which agreed to the bargains, may be pressed to deliver (e.g., the bargain made in 1995 and reiterated in 1996 is that the NEA will not receive an appropriation for the fiscal year beginning in October 1997). In both fiscal 1996 and fiscal 1997, the Senate has vigorously rejected the House call for an NEA phaseout. But, as noted below, the new Senate differs from its predecessor far more than the new House does.

Another problem that may arise early in the next session, if Interior subcommittee chair Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), stands by prior reported statements is that agencies or programs lacking proper authorization will not be included in his subcommittee's appropriation bill—shades of 1995! Similar assertions in 1995 did not come to pass because there were more than a dozen unauthorized agencies or programs in addition to the NEH and the NEA in the Interior bill that year.

The House of Representatives

Of the 21 House incumbents whose defeats have been registered at this writing—18 Republicans and 3 Democrats—9 had voted against the NEH at all opportunities (7 freshmen and 1 sophomore Republican and 1 Democrat); 6 were very supportive of the NEH (all Republicans, 3 freshmen); and 6 were supportive of the NEH on some votes. Peter Torkildsen (R-Mass.), who is challenging his defeat by John Tierney (D) (a recount is under way), will be the most serious loss of the election for endowment supporters if he does not prevail in the recount. Torkildsen played a key role in the 104th Congress, both in helping fellow GOP moderates to understand the value of the NEH and the NEA and in promoting bipartisan support for the endowments. Several of the newly elected members have good potential for supporting the agency notably Walter Capps (D-Calif.), but the retirements of Pat Williams (D-Mont.) and Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) will be particularly felt.

All in all, the new House can be characterized as more moderate than the 104th House. It will remain in GOP control, but with 8 to 12 fewer seats, depending on the outcome of the follow-up polling that will take place in Texas in December. (This article will go to press before the results of the polling are known.) The newly elected Democrats, for the most part, will come to the issue of the future of the endowments without the baggage of the struggle of the past several years.

With an even thinner majority than in the last Congress, the GOP leadership may shy away "from the more radical parts of its agenda that remain from the last Congress. (Most of that agenda was incorporated into the 1996 platform, but then largely ignored by the Dole campaign and many GOP congressional campaigns.) Nonetheless, the near-certain reelection of Dick Armey (R-Tex.) as majority leader will continue the pressure on the endowments. Armey is philosophically opposed to federal funding for the agencies. While he enjoys the support of others in the GOP leadership and of many rank-and-file GOP members, the combination of GOP moderates and a handful of Democrats suggests that radical approaches will probably not succeed. It is very possible that the main action in coming months may be centered not in the House but in the Senate.

Committee assignments, of course, will have a major impact on how the endowments fare. The disproportionate assignment of committee seats to Republicans may be modified, given the Democratic gains in the House. In the appropriations committee of the 104th House, the GOP had 32 seats and the Democrats had 24, which translates as 57 percent of the committee seats for the GOP even though its majority in the House was only 54 percent. The comparative underrepresentation was even more exaggerated in the Interior appropriations subcommittee where the minority Democrats had only 36 percent of the seats (votes), which added an extra handicap for any efforts to deviate from the majority leadership's agenda. When the final recounts are concluded, the distribution is likely to be 52 percent GOP and 48 percent Democrat. That could translate into a shift of two or three seats to the minority. Retirements and two defeats have left the committee with 4 GOP vacancies and 6 Democratic vacancies.

There was discussion in 1995 of changing the subcommittee structure of the Committee on Appropriations, but no action was taken. Again there is talk of such changes, one strategy being to reorganize along the major "budget function" lines (e.g., the NEH falls under function 500 [education and training] and therefore would move to an education subcommittee). Because the Senate would have to agree to similar modification or spread jurisdiction for House-passed budget items across two or more Senate appropriations subcommittees, broad changes are not too likely. In any event, the two key players, Ralph Regula and Sidney Yates (O-Ill.), will almost certainly be back as chair and ranking minority member of the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

The Senate

Although only one Senate incumbent was defeated at the polls (Larry Pressler [R-S.Dak.]), the conclusion of the 104th Congress means huge losses for endowment supporters. Fourteen mostly long-serving senators chose to retire rather than seek re-election. Most of these were active supporters of the NEH, especially Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Hank Brown (R-Colo.), William Cohen (R-Maine), Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), Bennett Johnston (D-La.), Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kans.), Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), Paul Simon (D- Ill.), and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). A 15th senator, Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), who was forced to resign from the Senate earlier in the session, was also a strong supporter of the NEA and the NEH.

Of the 15 new senators, 8 were members of the House in the 104th Congress and therefore have voting records available. These records break sharply along party lines so that the four Democrats (Richard Durbin [Ill.], Tim Johnson [S. Dak.], Jack Reed [R.I.], and Robert Torricelli [N.J.]) have records very supportive of the NEH, whereas the new GOP members (Wayne Allard [Colo.], Sam Brownback [Kans.], Tim Hutchinson [Ark.], and Pat Roberts [Kans.]) voted against the agency in most instances.

The GOP's gain of only two seats in the Senate for a 55-45 majority does not fully convey the shift to the right that has occurred as a result of the retirement of a large number of relatively moderate senators of both parties. A more conservative Senate will not necessarily be less supportive of the NEH. One of the peculiarities of recent disputes in Washington about ending federal support for the activities of the NEH is that many of the actors frame the issue in terms of liberals versus conservatives; liberals are seen as supportive of the NEH and conservatives are viewed as foes. But the central thrust of the NEH to preserve, conserve, and make the past accessible is positive for conservatives as well as for liberals.

With the departure of Hatfield, the appropriations committee will be chaired by Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), a legislator with a record of strong support for arts, humanities, libraries, and museums. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) will continue to chair the Interior subcommittee, which will continue to have strong supporters of the NEH and the NEA from both sides of the aisle, including Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Pete Domenici (R-N.Mex.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Robert Kerrey (D-Nebr.), a member of the full committee, has been especially supportive of the NEH.

The Administration

President Clinton's administration has been very supportive of cultural activities in general and of the NEH and the NEA in particular. As the continuing resolution through which the endowments received their fiscal 1997 appropriations was negotiated, it was apparently the strong push from the White House that permitted the NEH to escape additional budget reductions in the current fiscal year. How that support will play out in the next year is not predictable. On the one hand, the president is supportive, hut on the other, he says he wants to be the president who balances the budget for the first time in decades. The NEH's budget is minuscule in terms of the size of the deficit and the federal budgets, but over the past four years, the agency has fallen into a category of activities that are allowed to grow weakly if at all for the stated means of stemming the growth of the deficit. But in the longer run, the president may feel that in his second term, he has greater freedom to try to make the endowments and their budgets more secure for the future.

Reauthorization

The endowments have been without formal authorization for more than three years. In the 104th Congress, a standoff occurred with the following elements:

  • The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, under the leadership of chair William Goodling (R-Pa.), issued a bill in May 1995 that phased out the NEA in two years, phased out the NEH in three years, and transferred most of the agencies' funding to the states in the interim. Although the bill was never taken to the floor—a persistent story being that majority leader Dick Armey found it too soft on the endowments—it served as the basis for negotiations within the GOP caucus to attach language to Interior appropriations bills calling for the phaseout of the NEA.
  • The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, under the leadership of chair Nancy Kassebaum, Robert Jeffords (R-Vt.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Claiborne Pell,' produced a reauthorization bill in July 1995 that was widely admired by the arts and humanities communities even though it called for modestly declining appropriations. The bill was never brought to the floor, apparently because majority leader Robert Dole (R-Kans.) and his successor, Trent Lott (R-Miss.), did not assign a high priority to acting on the legislation. Dole actually called for termination of the agencies when he announced his formal entry as a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination. There was talk among Senate staff members and others about attaching the bill to an appropriations bill or other legislation, but nothing came of that. A more conservative alternative bill was offered by Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Robert Bennett that would have merged the two endowments and placed greater emphasis on grants to older, well-established cultural institutions. While there was talk combining elements of the two Senate bills, no action occurred.

In the 105th Congress, the House committee will be somewhat changed, partly by the absence of both Pat Williams and Steve Gunderson, who played leading roles in promoting federal support for cultural activities. Both also worked on legislation aimed at stimulating greater private sector support for the arts and humanities. On the positive side, however, several of the GOP members of the committee who supported phaseout when the Goodling bill was processed in 1995 have since moved to more moderate positions. In the Senate, there is still strong support for the endowments; Jeffords is likely to take up the reauthorization effort again, perhaps early in the session. Nonetheless, the loss of Kassebaum, Pell, and Simon from the authorizing committee is bound to be felt.

Appropriations

In addition to the problems raised in the House by lack of authorization and the lingering phaseout agreements, the mounting pressures connected with balancing the budget are bound to present obstacles for the NEH. As long as the current targets for reduction are maintained without reductions in the defense or entitlement budgets, it is going to be difficult for federal activities such as the NEH to thrive in the discretionary portion of the federal budget from which most of the savings are supposed to be found. And finally, the president is speaking favorably about the Balanced Budget Amendment, which failed by only one vote (Hatfield's) in the Senate in l995. The votes would seem to be there for passage in the 105th Congress.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.