In a dramatic showdown, the House voted narrowly Thursday to effectively eliminate National Endowment for the Arts, setting the stage for a second vote on a block grant program designed to replace it.
The 217-216 vote was on a procedural vote, known as a “rule,” that governs how legislation comes to the floor. But it amounted to a House decision on the future of federal arts funding.
A House vote on the block grant alternative could come as early as today. Its passage is by no means certain, and if it is defeated, the House would provide no funding for the NEA or any alternative.
Regardless of what the House does, NEA supporters expect the Senate to vote to save the federal arts agency in a future vote.
The Senate is expected to fully fund the NEA at the current level of $99.5 million, and experts expect it to prevail in anticipated negotiations with the House.
Still, Thursday’s vote was a long-sought victory for conservatives who have argued that the NEA reflects elitist attitudes and is out-of-touch with the values and interests of ordinary Americans. To arts advocates, it was a bitter turn.
“The endowment deserved the opportunity today to receive a vote on its merits and did not get one due to party politics,” said Jane Alexander, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “We now look to the Senate for a fair debate and vote on the future of the agency.”
The NEA’s defeat came largely because opponents devised alternative legislation that attracted votes by proposing to send $80 million in NEA money directly to state schools and arts agencies in block grants based on population.
“Texas will get almost as twice as much, over $5 million, as under the current program,” said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas. “I am not one of the ones who wanted to eliminate the NEA. But do you eliminate it altogether or block grant it? I’ll go for block granting it.”
Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., who devised the block grant alternative, said 26 states would actually gain arts funding under his proposal.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, closely identified with the anti-NEA effort, also voted for the rule and spoke passionately against the “concentrated, well-funded efforts of the art elite of America.”
“You don’t think this is about power? This is about control? That’s precisely what it’s about,” said Armey.
But NEA supporters countered that the GOP majority was also making a power play. “This is a cynical abuse of power,” said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis. “It is a device to allow Congress to assassinate the NEA.”
Fifteen moderate Republicans, including Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., joined 200 Democrats and one independent in opposing the rule, arguing that the restriction on being able to vote separately on the agency was unfair.
The NEA provision, which is part of the much larger Interior appropriations bill, reduced the agency’s budget to $10 million in shut-down costs.