Commentary

Closed Curtains on the Revolution

By Derrick A. Max
September 18, 1998

With the buzz of impeachment hearings growing louder in Congress and with the nation dizzy from the roller coaster ride we call Wall Street, little attention has been paid to the curtain that is quickly falling on the so-called Republican revolution. Judging from the passage of a pork-laden transportation bill to the wholesale acceptance of Clintoncare, Republicans in Congress appear to have lost sight of the key principles upon which they were elected.

There is no greater sign of this Republican retreat than the overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate to continue funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, a perennial target of both social and fiscal conservatives. By a 100-vote margin in the House, Republicans teamed up with Democrats to ply arts philanthropists with almost $100 million in hard-earned taxpayer money.

Amazingly, this congressional philanthropy far outpaces any real or perceived “need” in the arts. Last year, as a staff member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which has jurisdiction over the NEA, I helped prepare a report showing that the arts in America had never been healthier. We reported that, over the previous four years, the arts had experienced increased sales of over 17 percent. Likewise, the performing arts had annual admission receipts of $5.5 billion, an amount that almost exceeded total receipts for spectator sports (this before Mark McGwire, of course). Our report documented that the number of arts establishments had grown dramatically and that artists had higher earnings and lower levels of unemployment than the rest of the labor force. In short, our report concluded that the arts were booming and showed no sign of financial “need.”

This year the case for ending the NEA is even stronger. Since March the NEA has released eight reports confirming the continued health of the arts in America. The NEA reported that in 1997, the year following the year the Republican Congress cut the NEA by 40 percent, artist employment grew at an incredible rate of 3.7 percent. This is a full percentage point higher than employment growth in other professional occupations and more than double the rate for nonprofessional employment. Likewise, the NEA reported that between 1987 and 1992 the number of performing arts organizations grew by 30 percent, museums by 18 percent, theaters by 22 percent, classical music organizations by 22 percent and dance organizations by an incredible 43 percent.


While Republicans like to talk about making tough budgetary decisions, that appears to be true only when it comes to politically powerless constituencies, not when it comes to the likes of Alec Baldwin, Jane Alexander and Congress’s country club cronies.


Although Congress and the NEA would have us believe that government funding is the linchpin of that success, such thinking is tantamount to saying that roosters are essential to the sunrise. The NEA is nothing more than a loud rooster crowing in an otherwise independent and well-functioning system of private, state and local arts funding. In fact, while NEA funding has declined in recent years, private donations to the arts and humanities have grown dramatically and now amount to more than $10 billion per year. Likewise, state and local funding for the arts has also increased and now accounts for more than $1 billion per year. In short, despite the “arts in crisis” mentality of congressional supporters of the NEA, the arts are thriving.

Finally, like all attempts at congressional philanthropy through federal bureaucracy, the NEA wastes substantial funds on administrative costs (25 percent of NEA funds never reach artists), and the majority of funds goes to those who don’t need it: large cities with already well established arts communities and well-funded arts venues that serve patrons with higher than average incomes. In short, the NEA is little more than a government-run welfare bureaucracy dolling out funds to the cultured class.

The vote in the Senate on the future of NEA will be a true test of the political courage of this Congress. While Republicans like to talk about making tough budgetary decisions, that appears to be true only when it comes to politically powerless constituencies, not when it comes to the likes of Alec Baldwin, Jane Alexander and Congress’s country club cronies. The Senate vote on the NEA may truly be the last gasp of the Republican revolution.

Derrick A. Max, director of government affairs at the Cato Institute, was previously a member of the staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which has jurisdiction over the NEA.