Funding the Arts: “The Audacity of Pork”

$50 million in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 29, 2009, as part of its passing President Obama’s $819 billion economic “stimulus bill” - the so-called American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

President Obama had met with Republicans in the House prior to the vote, making concessions to them in an attempt to get his stimulus bill passed. One such compromise was the killing of $200 million in appropriations from the bill for improvements to the crumbling 1,000-acre National Mall in Washington, D.C., the home to the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. Newsweek magazine ran a July, 2008 story on the Mall’s scandalous state of disrepair that quoted the National Park Service saying a renovation of the Mall would cost “an estimated $350 to $500 million.”

Despite the concessions, the House vote was 244 to 188 - with not a single Republican casting a yes vote. The bill now moves to the Senate, where Republicans have targeted the NEA funding for termination, as well as the $150 million appropriated for funding the Smithsonian Institution - the nation’s most important cultural network of museums and research centers. ABC News reported that Obama’s response to Republican intransigence regarding his stimulus bill was the following comment; “I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk.” The president’s remark could very well be interpreted as a willingness on his part to see NEA and Smithsonian Institution funding removed from the stimulus bill. We shall see.

In December of last year, I made the following observation of Obama on this web log; “If he were to mount an effort at massive arts spending, I can imagine the organized right blocking his every attempt at implementing the policy for multiple reasons, and with his striving for a bipartisan approach to governance, it seems unlikely he would take a combative stance.” That very scenario now seems to be playing out before us.

Former chairman of the San Francisco Republican Party, Arthur Bruzzone, summed up rightist opposition to stimulus bill funding of the NEA, calling it; “the audacity of pork.” Conservative pundit and Republican strategist Michael Reagan, wrote an article for the GOPUSA website that criticized the stimulus package, referring to the NEA as; “hardly an engine for creating employment for the unemployed. About the only jobs it might create would be for the bureaucrats who would oversee the grant or an artist or two who specialize in exhibiting jars of urine containing a crucifix as their contributions to the nation’s culture.” While the NEA is certainly not beyond being criticized, Reagan’s remark is nothing more than philistinism.

It is disheartening to see the National Mall, the NEA, and the Smithsonian Institution being treated so shabbily. These national treasures should not be considered bargaining chips in someone’s political gamesmanship, and they most certainly should not be viewed as recipients of “wasteful pork barrel spending.” When those who dare call themselves “patriots”, display such mendacious and disparaging attitudes towards the best of American culture - barbarism will be found just around the corner.

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