With a floor fight over the fate of the National Endowment for the Arts looming at the end of the month, House Republicans yesterday claimed broad support for a revised bill that would dramatically restructure the endowment and impose restrictions on the type of art it may fund. Despite the emerging GOP consensus, the wording of the restriction remains a divisive issue in Republican ranks.
The proposed legislation would funnel 60 percent of NEA grant money to state arts agencies and require the NEA chairman to assure Congress that federally supported art is "sensitive to the nature of public sponsorship and to the cultural heritage of the United States, its religious traditions, or racial or ethnic groups, and does not violate prevailing standards of obscenity."
The endowment would recoup funding from recipients if the NEA chairman concluded that a work violated the Supreme Court's standards on obscenity, but a grant recipient could appeal the chairman's determination in federal court.
Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.) says his proposal has the backing of Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), as well as that of William Goodling (R-Pa.), ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, and Appropriations Committee member Ralph Regula (R-Ohio). Goodling and Regula confirmed their support for the bill, and a Michel staffer said the minority leader is expected to endorse it but has not reviewed it in full. A spokesman said Gingrich supports Coleman's concept "but reserves judgment regarding some substantive provisions."
Coleman and the legislation's coauthor, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), have not reached an accord with Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.), who -- with White House support -- drafted language that would restrict the type of art that may be funded by the NEA. While the Coleman-Gunderson bill includes most of the Henry language, Coleman said he omitted a few key words because of concern about their constitutionality.
Specifically, he excluded Henry's ban on support of art that violates prevailing standards of "indecency" (in addition to the obscenity ban). He also dropped a phrase that forbids the funding of art that would "deliberately denigrate" the country's cultural heritage, religious traditions, or racial or ethnic groups, opting to mandate "sensitivity" in those areas.
Henry said yesterday that he thinks the words "indecency" and "deliberately denigrates" are essential. He will try to add his language to Coleman's bill on the floor. Regula said he will support the more restrictive Henry language, but Goodling said he would oppose amending the Coleman-Gunderson bill. "I'm not sure falling on one's sword over those three words makes sense," he said.
The NEA did not comment on the Coleman-Gunderson proposal. All legislative proposals regarding the NEA must be submitted to the House Rules Committee by Monday. The terms of the debate will be set Tuesday, and the fight is expected to begin the following week.
Coleman said his plan is "a true restructuring" that will prevent the funding of controversial art like the exhibits of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. "I think we've gotten it as tight as possible while maintaining an atmosphere of creativity," he said.
Among the proposals likely to generate the most controversy is the provision for dealing with the funding of obscene works. The proposed legislation would require grant recipients to supply interim reports to the NEA on their work and a final report within 90 days of completing a project. If the chairman determines through one of those reports or "from other sources" that a project may violate obscenity standards, the grant recipient must provide "comprehensive written justification" of the work.
If the chairman decides the work violates the obscenity ban and the endowment demands its money back, the grant recipient can go to court -- an entirely new concept. Jim Fitzpatrick, a lawyer at Arnold & Porter and president of the Washington Project for the Arts, argued that that provision turns constitutional procedures on their head: "Under constitutional standards, the censor has to go to court," he said.
Fitzpatrick also maintained that the "sensitivity" requirement violates the Constitution because it is too vague and imposes prior restraint.
But Coleman said he was careful to stay within constitutional bounds. "I've consulted with lawyers, I've read cases myself, I am a lawyer," he said. "As long as you have that appeal process, it is constitutional."
Other elements of the proposed legislation would reform the NEA's panel review process for appraising grant applications. The bill does not include an earlier proposal to impose a $50,000 minimum on grants awarded by the endowment.
But most NEA grant money would be shifted to the states, a departure from the current level of 20 percent. The Coleman-Gunderson plan would give 40 percent of NEA money directly to state arts agencies and allow the endowment to allocate another 20 percent of its money to states on a competitive basis for programs for rural and inner-city arts programs. States would not be allowed to cut their funding for the arts in response to the increased federal allocation.
The NEA would be mandated to fund projects and productions "of substantial national and international significance" and to broaden access to arts through film, radio and television. The endowment would also assist in developing arts organizations "of high artistic promise" and fund an arts education program.