Opportunity from Disaster

The knives are out for NEA, NEH, and CPB in right-wing budget offensive

A bloc of extreme-right Republicans in the House of Representatives is currently trying to turn the misery of the recent hurricane disasters into their day in the sun. The Republican Study Committee, a legislative service organization chaired by Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, is shopping a proposal in the House entitled “Operation Offset” that urges sweeping cuts to federal social, educational, and cultural programs, in order, they claim, to pay for disaster recovery.

Among the dozens of programs singled out for cuts, the 24-page “Operation Offset” proposal demands the outright elimination of the federal cultural institutions—the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Like many of the programs in the RSC’s sights, the cultural agencies have for decades been targets of various factions in the GOP coalition.

While the NEA, NEH, and CPB have weathered severe backlash before—memorably the early-‘90s homophobic Kulturkampf against public underwriting of queer art—there is now well-founded concern that the agencies’ funding could be drastically curtailed if not eliminated outright. Amid the largest internal upheaval since the scandal-riven GOP overtook both chambers of Congress, fiscal hawks may be emboldened to lower the axe on arts and cultural funding, left newly vulnerable by the multiplying crises.

Adroitly maneuvering within the Congressional right-wing leadership vacuum created by former House majority leader Tom DeLay’s indictment and the ongoing investigation of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is the third-term holy warrior Mike Pence of Columbus, Indiana. Dubbed a “new power broker” by Business Week for his untiring advocacy on behalf of financial elites, Pence is alternately described as a promising contender or an undisciplined thorn in the hide of Capitol Hill bosses.

The child of Democratic Irish Catholic immigrants who lionized John F. Kennedy, Pence converted to evangelical Christianity in his youth, then enlisted in Newt Gingrich’s mid-’90s neo-con revolt, finally winning office in 2000 after two failed bids. On his Web site, Pence describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” His theocratic leanings were further signaled by his 2003 sponsorship of the so-called “Ten Commandments Defense Act,” the protest by Alabama Republican Representative Robert Aderholt against a federal judge’s banning of the tablets’ display in granite effigy in the Alabama Supreme Court rotunda.

In September 2004, the popular, telegenic Pence was elected chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a bloc within the House counting 106 members and representing an array of right-wing interests. Originally known as the Conservative Action Team before its rebranding as the RSC in 2000, this caucus was established in 1972 by the infamous strategic genius Paul M. Weyrich as a foil to the Democratic Study Group, launched by progressive senator and 1968 presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy. The RSC’s cognates in the Senate are the Conservative Working Group and the Senate Republican Steering Committee.

One of the principal architects of the contemporary rightist hegemony, Weyrich was the founder of both the Heritage Foundation, the archconservative policy redoubt, and the Free Congress Foundation, which laid the groundwork for the GOP’s current control of Capitol Hill. Though much in demand, Weyrich finds time to remain involved in the RSC’s and his protégé Pence’s fortunes. Days before “Operation Offset” was publicly announced, the plan was vetted in an RSC meeting at Heritage headquarters; after its rollout, Heritage issued numerous endorsements.

The RSC’s influence has waxed and waned over the decades but since the Republicans achieved their current majority, things have been coming up roses. Notwithstanding the Washington Post’s recent gibe, “House GOP leaders have taken to calling the [RSC] ‘the minority caucus,’ believing that Republicans would return to minority status if they were to follow its recommendations,” the RSC has gained new clout under Pence’s bare-knuckled stewardship.

While the specific cuts itemized in “Operation Offset” may not be the ones Congress ultimately enacts, observers say the RSC has lent needed traction to House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s call to expand post-Katrina budget cuts from $35 to $50 billion. Cultural funding remains at acute risk. Eben Peck, director of congressional affairs at CPB, remarked in an email, “The situation is very fluid. It is becoming clear that some portion of upcoming Katrina relief bills will be offset with spending cuts elsewhere. CPB’s funding could find itself in the offset column.”

Then again, the proposed cuts to CPB could be withdrawn following the latest steps to secure conservative control of the agency’s governance. In June, the former Republican National Committee co-chair and State Department propagandist Patricia Harrison was named CPB’s president and CEO, followed by the September 26 appointment of Republican donor-activists Cheryl Halpern and Gay Hart Gaines to its board. Jeffrey Chester, director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy, commented, “CPB might be spared the knife now that the appointments of Bush cronies to the board have made it a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP.”

Far from the elite extravagance Republicans portray it as, economic data indicate that federal arts funding is in fact a stimulus to growth nationwide. The nonprofit arts sector generates some $134 billion in trade annually, sustaining nearly 5 million jobs and yielding $10.5 billion in income taxes. And yet, to uphold arts funding solely or even primarily on financial merits is to reproduce the terms of debate favored by conservative strategists.

The NEA and NEH enable many thousands of us to experience the performing, visual, folk, and media arts of the highest caliber, at first hand. The CPB-supported networks convey these experiences to millions more who for reasons of economics, geography, or disability would not otherwise have access to museums, theaters, or concert halls. Very simply, our civil society needs the arts to make it worth living in. Federal arts funding now requires our vigorous defense.

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