Jim Leach is an unlikely warrior in the pitched battle over the future of the federal bureaucracy. The soft-spoken, erudite chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities is more comfortable discussing cultural diversity and civility in American politics than getting down in the trenches to protect his bureaucratic turf.
But ever since Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney vowed earlier this month to slash spending for the tiny NEH and other cultural organizations by half, Leach, a former moderate Republican House member from Iowa, has been drawn into an epic budget battle between Republicans and Democrats over the size and scope of the federal government.
As the Republican presidential campaign has heated up, candidates declared open season on the federal government. Texas governor Rick Perry has targeted the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy for extinction and vowed to “uproot the broken branches of government” in Washington if he becomes president. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has promised to shutter at least five government departments, as well as dismantle the Federal Reserve Board. Almost every GOP candidate has set his or her sights on dramatically reining in the Environmental Protection Agency, which they blame for a plethora of “job killing” regulations.
Republican budget cutters question whether in times of a $15 trillion national debt and limited resources, the government can afford the luxury of doling out millions for relatively obscure arts and humanities programs. This year, for example, the NEH provided a $197,882 grant to fund a four-week seminar at Arizona State University on “Rethinking the Land Ethic: Sustainability and the Humanities;” $115,117 for a two-week ethnomusicology summer institute in Bloomington, Ind., on “how music is transformed when it travels from one place to another;” and $257,813 for a six-week seminar at Princeton University on the prominent 20th Century philosophers and logicians Willard Van Orman Quine and Donald Davidson.
Last January, Rep. James Jordan of Ohio and 170 other conservative House members who make up the Republican Study Committee, called for the elimination of the NEH as part of a plan to reduce spending by $2.5 trillion over the coming decade. While the RSC proposal didn’t go anywhere, House Republican appropriators later voted to trim NEH’s operating budget for the coming fiscal year by $19.7 million, or 13 percent, from last year’s level.
“Defunding NEH was one over 100 items in the bill, not because our members don't appreciate the humanities, but because its activities are more rightly a function of state and local government and the private sector, and the federal government just doesn't have the money,” said an aide to the RSC. “And to those who say it's just a few hundred million dollars so why bother, that's the attitude that got us $15 trillion in debt and counting.”
But Leach and other advocates of the arts say the government is paying a small price to preserve and nurture the nation’s arts and humanities, and are troubled by the mounting budgetary assault from the Right.
In a speech Nov. 5 before a humanities conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., Leach complained about “the increasingly surreal world of Washington politics and the fiscal decisions that affect all elements of the federal government.”
“What is so troubling is that differences in judgment that are worthy of respect are exacerbated by partisanship that undercuts the capacity of governing bodies even to make decisions,” he said.
Federally subsidized cultural agencies and organizations are no strangers to controversy. Last March, House Republicans sought to cut funding for National Public Radio after conservative activist James O'Keefe released secretly taped videos of an NPR fund-raising executive making derogatory comments about Tea Party supporters to members of a fictitious Muslim group.
NEH and its sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts, have also weathered major threats to funding dating back to the culture war of the mid-1990s. That’s when conservative Republicans and family-values groups voiced outrage over a traveling exhibit funded by the NEA of the homoerotic and sacrilegious works of the artist-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both agencies suffered major budget cuts back then that hobbled their operations for years.
With 165 employees and an annual operating budget of $154.7 million – or 1/25,000th of the entire federal budget – NEH officials boast that their agency does “the most with less.” The 46-year old NEH hands out hundreds of grants and subsidies each year. Over the past decades it has supported the publication of more than 7,000 books, 16 of which have won Pulitzer Prizes. The endowment also has helped bankroll documentaries, including Ken Burns’ highly acclaimed civil war and prohibition era series.
“Thoughtful democratic governance requires, above all, that citizens understand the big picture: our own history and values and the history and values of other societies,” Leach says.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a major champion of the NEH and NEA, complained last week of “anti-intellectual” budget attacks on the two agencies.
“It’s more cultural than budgetary,” the senator said in an interview with The Fiscal Times. “For a lot of people, it’s almost an anti-intellectual thing. It’s the attitude that ‘We’re too good for this, we don’t need all this kind of thing.’ It’s really silly, because virtually every other country would be glad to support their humanities.”
Romney framed his call for slashing spending for federal cultural agencies strictly on budget terms, saying that while there are many worthwhile government activities, “The test should be this: ‘Is this program so critical that it is worth borrowing money to pay for it?’”
Leach acknowledged during an interview in his office last week that Romney’s argument “was more effective than I would have hoped because he was deft in the way he phrased his concerns.”
“I think it’s valid to say that once you look at programs from the perspective of, do I want to borrow from China to pay for such and such, that’s a very deft framework,” he sais. “At the same time, obviously as the head of an institution targeted for elimination, I differ with his conclusion.”
Leach said the NEH is struggling to hang on to last year’s budget level, and things could turn much bleaker if there are deep cuts in domestic spending in the coming years. “We’re really at a level of spending that is very close to the edge of sustainability in some areas,” Leach added. “I think it’s important to recognize that . . . just as you need an infrastructure of roads and bridges, you need an infrastructure of ideas.”