The House of Representatives cut $1.6 million yesterday from the budget of the University of the District of Columbia, the amount the school plans to spend on housing a controversial artwork that some members had denounced as pornographic.
The cut was proposed by Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), a frequent critic of the District, but quickly developed into a skirmish between several of the players in Congress's continuing struggle over the National Endowment for the Arts. Many conservatives have accused the NEA of supporting obscene or pornographic art and want to cut its budget or eliminate it entirely.
House members voted 297 to 123 to reduce UDC's budget after Republicans attacked the university's decision to make $1.6 million worth of renovations at its Carnegie Library to display "The Dinner Party" by feminist artist Judy Chicago.
"The Dinner Party," a huge triangle composed of ceramics and embroidery, depicts the history of women and contains sexual imagery. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), a frequent NEA critic, called the work "ceramic, 3-D pornography."
Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), a leading defender of the NEA, said, "I wouldn't have the arrogance to tell the University of the District of Columbia, we're going to penalize you because you're going to exhibit a piece of art I don't like."
More than 90 percent of the Republicans who voted supported the budget cut, while slightly more than half the Democrats endorsed the cut.
The $3.5 billion budget passed on a vote of 241 to 178.
Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Calif.), chairman of the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, said that he was surprised by the $1.6 million cut, but that he thinks the NEA will get more support among Democrats than did "The Dinner Party."
"I think a lot of Democrats who will support the NEA were looking for a way to cast a balancing vote, for 'cover,' " Dixon said. "This is the easiest vote in the world to cast because it doesn't affect anybody but the District."
Earlier this week, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) postponed a floor fight on the NEA reauthorization that had been set for today. Democrats weren't confident they had the votes to defeat various proposals to restructure the NEA and sharply restrict the type of art that it funds.
With the NEA fight now looming in September, Melanne Verveer of People for the American Way, a lobbying group that is backing the NEA, said yesterday's vote was "disconcerting." But she said it was not clear how much of the vote was "venting against the District of Columbia" and how much was a response to the issues engulfing the NEA.
Joy Silverman of the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression said the vote showed that Congress is ill-informed. "The imagery might be construed to be about female body parts, but it is in no way about pornography," she said.
Judy Chicago, who donated "The Dinner Party" to UDC, watched the congressional debate on TV in her home in Santa Fe, N.M. "I have never seen anything like this," she said.
The arts debate, which was part of the House's annual consideration of the District government's budget, eclipsed for the moment another issue: abortion.
The budget approved by the House yesterday would allow the District to use local money to pay for abortions for poor women. President Bush vetoed the District budget twice last year to force the removal of an identical provision.
Abortion opponents in the House had planned to contest the issue, but decided not to after White House officials promised Bush will veto the budget again unless funding for abortion is restricted.Staff writer Molly Sinclair contributed to this report.