Despite passionate arguments from its Senate supporters, the National Endowment for the Arts will not receive an increase in its budget for next year. Its Senate backers decided yesterday not to fight for an additional $5 million, yielding to the House-approved level of $98 million.
Senate appropriations leaders notified their House counterparts that they were abandoning their efforts to increase the endowment's budget to avoid tying up the entire Interior Department appropriations bill. The money that goes to federal cultural agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art is part of that large measure.
Earlier this week, members of the Senate and House appropriations committees had debated the merits of the increase. The chief negotiator for the House side refused to go beyond the current budget of $98 million. "The leadership is adamant that we stick to the House side," said Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Interior appropriations subcommittee.
A bipartisan group of senators argued that the NEA had followed the reforms the House had created four years ago and that its controversial days were largely over. The group also cited the impact of arts education, one area that the NEA funds, as another reason the increase was needed.
"I remain perplexed by this fight over the NEA," said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). He evoked the name of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose work incited some of the harshest criticism of the agency and led the politicians who saw his photographs as pornographic and blasphemous to call for its closing. "Mapplethorpe has been dead for 20 years and hasn't produced any art since he died," said Bennett.
The agency's critics say too much money is going to large metropolitan areas, that the entertainment industry should support nonprofit arts and that the endowment's administrative costs are too high.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) listed several sexually oriented performers whose work is "an insult to folks back home who are driving trucks and working at Wal-Mart." The examples he used, said an NEA spokesman, were not funded directly by the agency.