THE REPUBLICANS HAVE AND ITCH: the National Endowment for the Arts. And they plan to scratch it. Abolishing the 30-year-old agency is a recurrent theme of the GOP-controlled Congress. Although the NEA has provided more than 100,000 grants to rural elementary-school drama productions, inner-city choirs, public libraries and the like throughout the country, a few highly publicized awards to controversial artists have landed the agency squarely in the center of an ideological culture war. NEA opponents claim that reeling in the nation’s runaway deficit requires everyone to tighten his belt a little. But the NEA draws less than one-one-hundredth of 1 percent of the national budget, costing each taxpayer less than a can of soda a year. This is a political fight, not a financial one.
So, in short, a list of the barbarians on the Hill who would gladly dismantle the nation’s cultural mainstay.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
One of the prime foes of the NEA in both the Senate and the House, Helms contends that the agency is helping “impose or promote a liberal, immoral, pro-homosexual and perverse culture on the rest of the country.” A would-be chief of the thought police, Helms has written legislation that would prohibit the NEA from funding art that denigrates religion or depicts in a “patently offensive way” any activities involving sex or excretion. Other Helms-sponsored legislation calls for the elimination of the agency altogether.
Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.
As the then ranking member of the key appropriations committee, Nickles cut NEA funding by 5 percent ($8.5 million) last year after hearing about performance artist Ron Athey’s show, which included body mutilation. Nickles said the funding cut would “help ensure that such grossly improper activities are not undertaken … in the future.” In addition, Nickles has supported eliminating the budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which funds research and education projects in history, the arts and social sciences.
Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla.
A member of the important Senate Appropriations Committee, Mack has never missed the opportunity to vote for legislation that would gag the NEA and cut its funding.
Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas
A longtime opponent of the NEA, the Republican presidential hopeful has supported Helms’ legislation and voted to reduce the agency’s funding.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
Though Rohrabacher has said that he “doesn’t want to be known as the ‘arts policeman,’ ” he acted as Helms’ lieutenant in the House by pushing a bill to gag the NEA. Rohrabacher proposed his own bill to kill the NEA but dropped that effort to lead the floor fight for the Helms amendment.
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.
Labeling the NEA as the agency most “offensive to America’s traditional family values,” Stearns has proposed two amendments of his own that would reduce its funding, and he has also supported eliminating the NEH altogether.
Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill.
A perennial opponent of public funding of the arts, Crane offered his first bill to abolish the NEA in 1990. Crane has also called for the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEH.
Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif.
Referring to various NEA-supported artists as “porno scum joke,” “porno female joke” and “porno slime,” Dornan has said funding for the arts is “a luxury we simply cannot afford.” He has called for the NEA’s abolition and supported any and all legislation that would gut the agency.
Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas
House Majority Leader Armey proposed abolishing the NEA on grounds that “we cannot afford the NEA in our budget” and that it “offends the Constitution.” Armey also supports eliminating the NEH.
Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
House Speaker Gingrich, the self-proclaimed counterculture critic, has called the NEA “a plaything of pork… art patronage for the elite” and wants it eliminated.
Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla.
First elected in ’94, Largent has emerged as a leader of freshmen NEA haters. Going even further than the GOP leadership, Largent led a group of mostly rookie Republicans in a successful battle to kill funding for the NEA without any debate or vote in the House.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio
A hard-line foe of the NEA, House newcomer Chabot also opposes the NEH, calling it “a boondoggle.” Accordingly, he recently offered up his own amendment to eliminate the agency.