The annual Arts Advocacy Day almost fizzled. The committee that controls the purse for the arts and humanities endowments had to cancel a morning hearing because of the pressing budget questions.

The bad weather caused travel delays and actor Alec Baldwin arrived really late for the reconfigured program. But when Baldwin did arrive, he had his one-liner ready. Saying he had heard the government was about to shut down, he remarked: “I didn’t know Charlie Sheen was in Congress these days.” The fans of “30 Rock” and “It’s Complicated” who had waited around with their camera phones laughed appreciatively.

WASHINGTON - Actors Kevin Spacey (L) and Alec Baldwin attend the Arts Advocacy Day April 5, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Ovation)

Standing in a cavernous room in the Cannon Office Building, Spacey proposed pretending the setting was street theater. Addressing the imaginary subcommittee, he delivered his talking points right from his prepared testimony. Encouragement from a mentor can change someone’s life, he argued. In Spacey’s case it was the great Jack Lemmon.

“We were learning about an Irish play called “Juno and the Paycock,” which Mr. Lemmon was performing with Walter Matthau. And when it came time for me to do a scene, with Mr. Lemmon observing, I did it in the shaky voice of a young person without much confidence or self-esteem. But once I finished Mr. Lemmon came over, put his arm around me and said, “Now that was a touch of terrific!” He saw something in me-a potential-that even I hadn’t recognized,” Spacey said, recalling a drama workshop in Los Angeles. The acclaimed actor did a pitch-perfect Lemmon.

But he added that just as important Lemmon had a philosophy he had adopted as his own. Success begets responsibility. “It is your obligation to spend a good portion of your time ‘sending the elevator back down,’ said Spacey, adding to vigorous applause, “To me, an NEA grant isn’t about the art itself-it’s about our country sending the elevator back down so that a new creative idea can get a chance to prove itself.”

The Oscar and Tony winner is now the artistic director of The Old Vic Theatre Company in London and is co-executive producer of a documentary about teenagers who overcome obstacles to compete in Southern California Shakespeare Festival.

The panel of artists, business leaders and politicians were converging on Capitol Hill Tuesday to tell the lawmakers that arts and arts education are priceless investments and that the proposed $167. 5 million in fiscal 2012 for the arts endowment is just a start.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees funds for the endowments and the Smithsonian, brought encouragement and a bit of Republican levity. Following rabble rousing from Reps. James Moran (D-Va.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Simpson pulled out a white handkerchief of surrender.

He said some people believed no level of government should support the arts. “I respectfully disagree,” he said. He harkened back to the 1990s wars over public money and the arts when the NEA budget was slashed. “We are just making our way back from those reductions. I don’t want to go through that period again.” He got the kind of applause Spacey, Baldwin and Hill (CSI:New York) hear at the end of a performance.

Though he hadn’t heard the Simpson remarks, Baldwin picked right up on the politician's goal to bring the arts to rural communities. Baldwin said he liked the impact of $20,000 NEA grant to the Boise Art Museum, a $10,000 NEA grant to the Fine Arts Association of Willoughby Ohio, another $10,000 to the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Besides making an immediate impact, Baldwin says the results last until a person’s final hours.

On the deathbed, he said, people “don’t think about the fabulous bill Congress passed. They think about music, a poem. The arts are what is under the skin.”

And the award-winning actor is also following Lemmon’s advice and has pledged some earnings from the commercials he is doing for Capital One to the Americans for the Arts, the organizer of the Arts Advocacy Day.