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There was a time, in the not too distant past, when the debate over the
Interior Appropriations bill would touch off an annual battle between
liberals and conservatives over the National Endowment for the Arts.

When Republicans first took over Congress, the House of Representatives
completely eliminated funding for the NEA, only to have the money restored
by the GOP-led Senate.

The National Endowment for the Arts is the agency that put our
government’s stamp of approval on something known as homoerotic art. In the
past, NEA grants have gone for everything from the crude and lewd to the
ridiculous. The NEA has funded plays and exhibits that denigrate religion
and desecrate the flag. Can we ever forget Karen Finley, the “performance
artist” who was rewarded with a NEA grant to smear her nude body with
chocolate and bean sprouts to represent sperm? One of my all-time favorites
was a grant the NEA gave to one “artist” who threw crepe paper streamers
from an airplane to sculpt in the air.

Congress tried to reign in the NEA by restricting grants to individual
artists. However, things really haven’t changed all that much since the NEA
now hands out grants to organizations that simply act as middlemen, doling
our hard-earned tax dollars out to some of these same all too familiar
characters.

Congress now places some of its members on the Council on the Arts, which
advises the chairman of the NEA but it, too, has had little effect. As
ex-officio members, they are not permitted to vote on grant approvals and
they are faced with reviewing hundreds of pre-screened proposals at a time.

For a while there was a perception that the NEA had reformed, but can
anyone forget the flap created by the British exhibit “Sensation” at the NEA
funded Brooklyn Museum of Arts, which featured a painting of the Virgin Mary
decorated with elephant dung and pictures from porn magazines. Which
followed on the heels of the play Corpus Christie, which portrayed Jesus
Christ as a homosexual, at the NEA-funded Manhattan Theatre Club.

The House deserves credit for cutting the NEA’s funding from $176 million
in the last year the Democrats controlled Congress to roughly $98 million
today. Has Art in America suffered? No, cutting the NEA’s funding has had
just the opposite effect. More people are working in the arts today than
ever before and the number is growing. In fact, employment in the arts is
growing 3.6 times faster than general employment from 1997-1998.

According to the NEA’s own statistics, total attendance at artistic
activities grew from 441 million in 1992, when the NEA was nearly at its
peak, to 605 million in 1997, after NEA funds were cut. That is a 37
percent increase in the participation in the arts with a leaner NEA. During
that same time period, attendance at spectator sporting events declined,
which led some in Congress to ask if the professional sports industry came
to American taxpayers with their hats in their hand, would you bail them
out?

Conservatives in the House deserve a lot of credit this year for
derailing an amendment to the Interior Appropriations bill that would have
given the NEA a $15 million increase. The Senate version of the Interior
bill that will be on the floor Tuesday has the NEA slated for a $6 million
increase. Liberals will try to up the ante before the final vote.
Conservatives aren’t expected to put up much of a fight.

The high water mark for the Republican revolution in the Upper Chamber
came in 1997. On Sept. 17, when John Ashcroft, R-Mo. offered an amendment
to strike the funds for the NEA, it received only 23 votes. That was when
Senate Republicans made their peace with big government.

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