Seeking a "cooling-off period" on the volatile issue of government funding of the arts, the White House today will ask Congress to reauthorize the National Endowment for the Arts without any restrictions for only one year while a commission reviews the endowment's grant-making procedures.
The decision amounts to an administration concession that it has been unable to gain control over the growing move among conservatives in Congress to clamp down on what some view as government funding of obscene art. White House officials said they expect the congressional leadership to embrace the one-year reauthorization, and the proposal has the support of NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer, who said this is a chance to come up with "a reasonable solution, rather than a hysterical response."
Some Republicans, however, predicted yesterday the move would fail to quell the controversy. "There will be a fight," said Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.).
A Senate aide also questioned whether the administration can win conservative support. He said NEA backers in Congress will go along with a one-year extension -- rather than the usual five-year reauthorization -- only if the White House pushes hard. "They've got to build a convincing coalition to avoid a floor fight," he said. "There's no appetite for two major floor fights in two years. If we can't see this coalition working, then I think the endowment supporters would prefer to fight for a five-year bill."
The NEA has been embroiled in emotional debate over federal funding of the arts and freedom of expression since June 1989 because of grants awarded for an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs depicting homoerotic images and an exhibit that included an Andres Serrano photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. Congress affixed restrictions on "obscene" art to the NEA fiscal 1990 appropriation, drawing protests from several major institutions and a lawsuit over the constitutionality of the language.
Frohnmayer expressed hope yesterday that the administration would win congressional backing for this latest move. "This is an attempt to unify support on the Hill and I would certainly hope that the Republicans at least would listen to leadership from the White House," he said.
He also said he has spoken to five or six "significant" members of Congress and got a "favorable" reaction to the White House plan.
In the midst of this year's battle over the NEA, President Bush in March gave Frohnmayer a public vote of confidence and called for a full five-year reauthorization of the NEA without content restrictions.
Frohnmayer is expected to announce the new administration position today when he testifies before Congress. At the same time, a 12-member advisory commission, half appointed by the White House and half by Congress, is to hold its first meeting today. The commission is supposed to expire in September but the White House will ask Congress to extend its life, Frohnmayer said.
The administration's move came following a White House meeting yesterday where senior White House officials, Frohnmayer and officials from his agency, Lynne Cheney, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others sought to assess the controversy and what the administration could do to control it. An official said the administration's goal is "to let the noise level die down ... let the commission do its work and revisit this next year ... we are saying, let's everyone just back off for a year."
Frohnmayer's decision last week to fire his number two official at the agency, Alvin S. Felzenberg, caused a new wave of controversy among NEA critics, a GOP source said. While Felzenberg is not considered an ideological conservative, NEA critics backed him because he had pushed internally for revising NEA's grant procedures. NEA officials portray the split as one over Felzenberg's predilection for policy rather than administration.
White House officials said a new post is being sought for Felzenberg and that his departure from the agency is due not to disagreement over the obscenity in art issue but because the two officials could not work well together. "They're oil and water," one official said. "It just wasn't working out."
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.