Officials from the National Endowment for the Humanities was taken to taken to task by their most ardent congressional supporter, Rep. Sidney Yates (d-Ill.). He chaired yesterday afternoon's hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, and lectured the agency for not having a strong enough defense against a proposed 50-percent budget cut.

NEH chairman Joseph Duffey said after the hearing, "I consider myself a spokesman for the administration's proposal. My first responsibility is to defend the administration's budget proposal, and I'll also respond to congressional request."

Yates asked Duffey what he would do if there were only a 20-percent reduction in the budget -- a cut Duffey had recommended as "difficult but reasonable" in a letter to OMB director David Stockman.

"This is a difficult time," said Duffey. "We are very interested in seeing inflation curbed. I would say I believe the funds restored by a 20-percent [as opposed to 50 percent] cut could be used widely and prudently by the endowment. It's hard to talk about needs. . ."

"You're arguing about cutting inflation," said Yates. "Why don't you take a 75-percent cut? If you can't administer the agency as mandated then you should say so. . . I know you have to conform to the OMB budget, but you also have to tell Congress whether or not you can do this. . .What I'm trying to get from you, Mr. Duffey, is how much you need to run this agency."

Yates was unsatisfied with Duffey's responses to reservations expressed by Rep. John Murtha (d-Pa.) about how fairly the NEH spread the wealth.

"Rep. Murtha has the impression that all of your goodies go to the urban areas and not rural areas," said Yates. "I think you ought to reply really strongly on this point, because there are a lot of congressmen who are very concerned about this."

Duffey responded by reading off a list of small cities in Pennsylvania that had received grants. "We're not doing as well as we should."

For the next hearing on May 15, Yates requested budget proposals that take into account cuts off 10, 15, and 25 percent.

"If I was annoyed," said Yates after the hearing, when asked, "it was because I didn't have as much information . . . I'm trying to get all this to prepare to take to Congress."

When, during the hearing, Duffey pointed out unfortunate effects of funding cutbacks, Yates was even stronger in his criticism of the cuts. "I once asked [author] Barbara Tuchman what she was working on," said Yates. "She said, 'a treatise on the manifest un-wisdom of government.' I think that's what happened to these budgets on the arts and humanities."