“It’s unlikely but not impossible,” I wrote four days ago in the ArtsWatch story A little money for the arts, “that the [National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities], which have been targets of the fiscal and social right almost since they were created in 1965, could end up on the chopping block again. They are pawns in a much larger game, and increasingly, powerful political players are unafraid to sacrifice their pawns in search of bigger victories on the board.”
That was Thursday. Today is Monday. Pass the mustard so I can eat my words: “Unlikely” was a word choice of undue optimism.
In his new federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 released today, President Trump has once again called for elimination of both endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, another longtime target of the political right. The 22 agencies targeted in the budget proposal for elimination, according to The Hill, also include the Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as programs that help fund low-income and after-school learning centers, several education programs, the Global Climate Change Initiative, and public health programs such as the Chemical Safety Board.
None of this is by any means a done deal. As the New York Times reported Monday afternoon in its story on the budget proposal, White House Proposes $4.4 Trillion Budget That Adds $7 Trillion to Deficits: “The blueprint … has little to no chance of being enacted as written, [and] amounts to a vision statement by Mr. Trump, whose plan discards longtime Republican orthodoxy about balancing the budget.”
Last week the president signed an emergency budget agreement sent to him by Congress that broke the back of a temporary government shutdown and included funding for the endowments. But that was then. Today’s proposal calls for slashing domestic programs agreed upon last week while continuing the budget’s sharp rise in military expenditures.
The Times story continues: “Presidential budgets are little more than vision statements even under normal circumstances, given that Congress controls the federal purse strings and may disregard the wishes of whomever is sitting in the Oval Office. That is even more true this year, after congressional leaders in both parties essentially went around Mr. Trump to strike their own budget deal that bore little resemblance to the one he was drawing up. Lawmakers spread federal dollars around in the kind of legislative horse trading that the president has often decried as a symptom of ‘the swamp’.”
NEA Chair Jane Chu said in an announcement Monday: “We are disappointed because we see our funding actively making a difference with individuals in thousands of communities and in every Congressional District in the nation.” Then she walked a fine semantic line necessary to all federal agencies: “As a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.”
The amount of money in question is barely a speck on the national budget: The NEA’s most recent annual budget is $149.9 million. But that money spreads a long way, and is key to the operation of state and local cultural agencies such as the Oregon Arts Commission and the greater Portland area’s Regional Arts & Cultural Council. Endowment funding has been crucial to support for cultural programs in every corner of the state and among low-income and marginalized populations.
The endowments, which have long been convenient footballs in the ongoing and politically profitable “culture wars,” have been down this path many times before and have emerged with funding, albeit often at decreased levels. Right-wing politicians and media figures have scored points by painting arts and artists as fundamentally elitist, leftist, and unpatriotic if not actually treasonous. But the endowments have drawn quiet support from traditional Republican politicians who want to keep federal support for the museums, opera companies, and symphonic orchestras in their districts.
Perhaps ironically, the shouts to eliminate federal cultural support have mostly been political theater. But anything can happen in the extreme divide of American politics today. Don’t count the NEA and NEH out. But don’t count them in, either. This ballgame isn’t over.