The Senate slashed subsidies for arts and humanities programs by a third Wednesday - after defending such spending as essential to bringing art and culture to small communities.
The cuts, part of a $12 billion spending bill for the Interior Department and other agencies, are slightly smaller than those approved by the House and are viewed by supporters as enough to keep the endowments operating.
“It still leaves the endowments … terribly underfunded,” complained Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark.
The Senate bill would provide $110 million, compared with $99 million approved by the House, for the arts endowment and about the same for humanities for the 1996 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The two programs are receiving $163 million and $172 million, respectively, this year.
The Senate later passed the overall bill by a 92-6 vote.
The House, in addition to imposing more severe cuts, envisions phasing out the arts program within three years. The Senate bill has no such provision, and anticipates continued funding. The differences must be worked out in negotiations between the two chambers.
The endowments have been under intense attack for years from conservatives who have cited federal money that has gone to individual artists for works criticized by many as obscene, pornographic or an attack on religion.
The Senate bill would restrict how the National Endowment for the Arts distributes money, with nearly half going to states as block grants. Money for individual artists, which has prompted many of the controversies, would also be restricted.
Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., a staunch supporter of the arts subsidies, said the severe cuts remain troublesome but the modest increase over the House spending would “make sure the endowments go forward throughout the year.”
The bill, as sent to the full Senate by the Appropriations Committee, would have spent $114.5 million on the humanities endowment and $99.5 million on the arts endowment.
By voice vote, the Senate easily passed Jeffords’ amendment to spend $110 million on each endowment.
Jane Alexander, who chairs the National Endowment for the Arts, called the Senate action “both a real and symbolic victory for the American people” and said the debate attested to the program’s importance for the average citizen.
She has said in the past that a 40 percent funding cut, as approved by the House, would mean sharp reductions in grants and require the agency to lay off workers. Even the smaller reductions endorsed by the Senate were expected to mean severe belt-tightening.
Jeffords acknowledged past “embarrassments” in the arts subsidy program, but said that the new controls “will eliminate any possibility of that happening again.” That was enough to gain support from conservatives.
When the House voted to slash spending for both endowments by 40 percent earlier this year, it moved to put strict controls on the arts endowment with an eye toward ending it within three years.