A key House committee yesterday approved a plan to eliminate the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities by fiscal 1999.
The bill was ramrodded by Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.), chairman of the panel handling reauthorization of the federal cultural agencies. Afterward, Goodling said the plan was as friendly a measure as the endowments are likely to see in the House this year. Republican leaders, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), have called for elimination of the agencies, perhaps on a swifter schedule than Goodling proposes. "We have two alternatives -- nothing or the best I can do. This is the best I can get out of committee," he said.
Goodling's bill would allow the endowments to continue for three years with sharply reduced funding. The arts endowment would be required to send most of its grant money directly to the states.
The NEA would lose 40 percent of its funding in fiscal 1996, 40 percent of its '96 funding in 1997 and 20 percent of that funding in 1998. The NEH would lose 20 percent of its funds each of those years, then close its doors.
The Institute for Museum Services, another federal culture agency, would continue to get its $28.7 million a year under the bill -- an amount that Goodling said "had been well used and should be continued."
The vote was taken at a hastily called session of the Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities. The committee needed to act before the House appropriations panels decide on a budget target for fiscal 1996. But several congressmen heatedly protested that the bill was skipping the usual process of subcommittee hearings, reviews and votes.
"This is not the way to restructure America's major cultural agencies," said Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), who has previously chaired the reauthorization process. The committee turned down an amendment by Williams to continue authorization for two years at current funding levels, and also an amendment from Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) to scrap the agencies immediately.
The final vote was 19 to 2 in favor of Goodling's bill, with 18 members voting "present" -- apparently to register dissatisfaction with the process.
The bill would end the NEA's programs for particular disciplines, such as design and media arts, and would shift 80 percent of the grants directly to the states. The term of the NEA chairman would be cut by one year to three years, and administrative expenses would be capped at $5 million -- a loss of $19 million that the agency said would force it to eliminate jobs.
Goodling calculated that his plan would provide $97.5 million for the NEA next year, down from $162.5 million in this year's tightened budget, then drop to $58.5 million in fiscal 1997 and $46.8 million the following year before losing all funding thereafter.
"That would truly give them time to get involved in the private sector," said Goodling, who agrees with Gingrich that funding of the arts should be privatized.
The fate of the cultural agencies is under consideration by several congressional committees. The Goodling bill needs a go-ahead from Gingrich to reach the floor, where alternative bills might be introduced to supersede it. Other proposals under discussion include the recommendation of House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio) to immediately kill both the NEA and the NEH, and a call by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) for a 50 percent cut for both agencies.
Republicans and Democrats alike spoke yesterday of the complicated pressures they face in meeting the wishes of their constituents: People want to reduce the deficit and continue cultural programs in their communities. Rep. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the loss of funds would be "disastrous" and predicted that people will be watching Wendy Wasserstein's plays long after they've forgotten the Congressional Record.