Publication Date

October 1, 1996

As I write this article, it is early August, and the U.S. Congress has just recessed for conventions, campaigning, and even vacationing. The fate of the fiscal 1997 budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) was left unresolved, but it seems that the agency will end up with an appropriation of somewhere between $99.5 million and $110 million, either through a completed appropriations or, as is increasingly likely, through a continuing resolution passed as Congress rushes to return to the campaign trenches.

The NEH has suffered a good deal of damage at the hands of the 104th Congress. The agency entered fiscal 1995 (which began a month before the 1994 congressional elections) with a budget of $177 million and robust, highly competitive programs. A $5 million rescission from the fiscal 1995 budget, followed by a 36 percent cut, resulted in a fiscal 1996 budget of $110 million, which left the agency still critically important both for the public and the humanities community. Nonetheless, the disproportionate reductions that the NEH has suffered have affected and will continue to affect all areas of NEH activity. For example, in fiscal 1996:

  • NEH seminars and institutes for high school and college teachers will support the participation of 1,400 teachers, who in turn will reach 220,000 students with intellectually reinvigorated instruction. Compared to fiscal 1995, when 2,600 teachers participated, 200,000 fewer students will be reached.
  • NEH's projects to preserve fragile books, newspapers, documents, and artifacts held in the nation's libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions have been at the forefront of efforts to save such materials. Fiscal 1996 reductions have forced the NEH to make fewer and smaller grants. As a result, 20,000 brittle books and 230,000 disintegrating pages of historically significant newspapers will not be microfilmed. In addition, 130,000 objects of archaeological, ethnographic, or historical importance to the nation will not be preserved.
  • In the preparation of scholarly editions of presidential and other important historical papers, NEH's support is central to projects searching out and drawing together key documents from thousands of repositories in virtually every state. Because of the fiscal 1996 cuts, NEH was forced to end the special editions program for these papers. This means that the 40 ongoing editions projects will compete with 400 collaborative research projects for no more than 20 awards. Unless a less draconian budget situation can be arrived at, no more than three or four of the ongoing presidential projects will continue to receive NEH funding.
  • NEH support for museum exhibitions, television and radio programming, and other public activities has been substantially reduced. This means that the NEH may not discover the next Ken Burns, who produced such documentaries as The Civil War and The West, or the next Henry Hampton, who brought us The Great Depression. Both Burns and Hampton got their start with NEH funding.
  • Finally, the support of scholarship is the fundamental underpinning for all other activities supported by the NEH because all of the endowments projects—film, library, museum, state humanities council, high school, and college institute—draw upon scholarship in one form or another. The NEH is the largest single source of support for humanities scholarship and research. Support for scholarly research was especially hard hit by the sharp reductions in fiscal 1996 because Congress, with little or no animus toward scholarship, nonetheless moved to lessen the impact of the reductions on state programs and preservation. This form of relative shelter had the unintended effect of further squeezing all other NEH programs.

In its consideration of funding for the NEH and certain other federal cultural agencies, the l04th Congress has been especially fond of the idea that there are dozens of alternatives to federal funding. Leaders of the House of Representatives have suggested that the NEH can endure large reductions because foundations and others will pick up the slack. A 1996 report for the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities entitled "Looking Ahead: Private Sector Giving in the Arts and Humanities" and researched and written by Nina Kressner Cobb, had two significant findings with regard to the NEH: (1) the private sector cannot fill the void of financial support for the humanities should the federal presence cease to exist, and (2) the NEH is still the single largest source of support for the humanities nationwide compared to the private sector and to other units of government.

The NEH is central to the health and vitality of the humanities enterprise. The losses of the last two years will take years to recoup. Even when the zeal of the reformers of the 104th Congress has cooled-and many think that the process is well under way-the politics of the deficit and compelling claims on the federal budget from other reduced programs claims suggest a long recovery period at best.

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