An independent commission yesterday urged Congress not to include anti-obscenity language in legislation to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts. The panel also urged the NEA to drop a controversial requirement that grant recipients sign a pledge that they won't use federal money to create "obscene" art.

While the commission's report seemed unlikely to quell the pandemonium over the endowment's fate in Congress, its words may carry some weight. Many observers believe that some in the Senate were waiting for the report, hoping it would support legislation free of stringent restrictive language. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee promptly set a markup session for this morning on a bill to reauthorize the endowment. While staffers were tight-lipped, the committee is expected to approve a bill without extensive content restrictions.

The 12-member commission, created amid last year's controversy over the endowment, included four members selected by President Bush, four recommended by the House majority and minority leadership and four chosen by the Senate majority and minority leadership. The group was chaired by lawyer Leonard Garment and John Brademas, a former congressman who is now president of New York University.

The endowment's reauthorizing legislation remains in limbo with few weeks left in the current session of Congress. On the House side, an Appropriations Committee markup was tentatively set for this afternoon although staffers were still uncertain late yesterday whether the meeting would take place.

Members of the Appropriations Committee plan to introduce several controversial proposals, including anti-obscenity language and a measure to prevent the endowment from functioning on a stop-gap appropriation if Congress doesn't pass the reauthorization. Some endowment supporters hope that Congress might simply extend the NEA through an appropriation and avoid dealing with the reauthorization process in an election year.

Meanwhile, key members of the House characterized the commission report as helpful, but supporters of content restrictions did not appear to be chastened.

Rep. Paul Henry (R-Mich.) said the commission's report is "unsatisfactory" in dealing with "the bottom-line issue." Henry is the author of a proposal that would forbid the endowment to fund art that would "deliberately denigrate" the country's cultural heritage, religious tradition or racial or ethnic groups and prohibit funding for art that is obscene or indecent.

Similarly, Rep. Tom Coleman (R-Mo.), who has proposed shifting funds away from the endowment to state arts councils and who has proposed restrictive language similar to Henry's, said he would not alter his position. "We have to go further than {the commission} did," he said. "I think the membership is going to require it."

Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), who has long advocated reauthorization of the endowment without content restrictions, said he hoped the commission's recommendations would open the door to new negotiations in the House. "The commission has demonstrated once again that when any group of citizens spends time with this issue, they arrive at very similar conclusions and recommendations," Williams said. "The commission's work may provide us with the impetus for a new start on this contentious issue."

But the report doesn't create "huge avenues" leading to bipartisan accord, Williams acknowledged. "There are still a number of people who are going to offer amendments and vote with an eye on November 6 and there's nothing we can do about that," he said.

The NEA said Chairman John Frohnmayer would study the report before commenting.

Brademas and Garment observed yesterday that the bipartisan commission's deliberations were not particularly harmonious. Garment said the debate was "difficult and contentious," and credited Brademas with forging a unanimous recommendation. Winning a consensus was so challenging, Brademas concurred, that "we ought to make this commission available to the negotiators at Andrews Air Force Base to work out the budget deficit."

The commission found that "the standard for publicly funded art must go beyond the standard for privately funded art." Aside from the central concern for artistic excellence, the commission stated, "publicly funded art must take into account the conditions that traditionally govern the use of public money." The commission cited the NEA's original authorizing legislation, which sets forth a number of goals for the endowment including the encouragement of "public knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the arts."

In recent weeks, Frohnmayer has cited that language to explain the endowment's approach to funding decisions. Rather than confronting questions of obscenity, Frohnmayer has contended that some inflammatory work should not receive government support because it does not enhance public appreciation of art.

In one recommendation that was key to reaching unanimity, the commission urged changes in the preamble of the authorizing legislation. "The preamble should ... affirm that the Endowment depends upon the expenditure of public funds and that it must take into account the nature of public sponsorship," the commission said. "The preamble should further recognize that in addition to seeking to strengthen the nation's rich cultural heritage, the American people assign a high place to the ways in which the arts can foster mutual respect among all persons and groups."

The proposed changes in the preamble should encourage "prudence and sensitivity" at the endowment, the commission found. At the same time, the commission implicitly recognized the possibility that some government-funded art may be offensive to segments of the public. "Maintaining the principle of an open society requires all of us, at times, to put up with much we do not like but the bargain has proved in the long run to be a good one," it found.

Relying on the advice of a panel of constitutional lawyers, the commission concluded that "specific legislative restrictions were unwise and should be avoided." If explicit restrictions are imposed, the commission continued, "the result will be not more elevated art but debilitating administrative and legal difficulties."

The commission recommended a variety of changes intended to enhance the authority of the NEA chairman, to heighten scrutiny of proposed grants by the commission's advisory council, to address perceived conflict-of-interest problems and to broaden membership on the commission's grant review panels. But it opposed Coleman's plan, under consideration in the House, to funnel 40 percent of the endowment's grant money to state arts agencies. None of the witnesses who testified before the commission on that issue supported Coleman's plan, the commission noted.