The simmering controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts is moving toward some sort of resolution on Capitol Hill. Those who oppose the expenditure of tax funds to subsidize certain "artists" had better watch closely. A bit of parliamentary razzle-dazzle is in the works.
Congressional authorization for the NEA expired technically on Sept. 30, but the agency remains in business under a catch-all continuing resolution. A bill pending in the House would reauthorize the agency for five more years with no restriction upon the funding of grants.Meanwhile, a line item in the appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior also is pending. This would appropriate $180 million for the NEA in the coming fiscal year. At a time of fiscal austerity, the bill would provide $5 million more than the NEA has requested, $9 million more than it received last year.
The two pieces of legislation - the reauthorization bill and the appropriations bill - have been languishing for weeks. With adjournment approaching and everything piling up, friends of the NEA are scheming to pack the whole works into a section of the Interior appropriations bill. Under a closed rule, critics would be gagged and amendments forestalled. The railroad whistle is blowing.
The prospect would repudiate a promise made by Rep. Augustus Hawkins in the report of his Committee on Education and Labor in June when he said: "Given the complexity of the issues, the committee wants to provide the opportunity for all members of the House to be involved in the reauthorization. In approving the legislation that would simply reauthorize the agency for five years, without any major changes, the committee hopes to provide for the fullest expression of points of view in debating this legislation on the House floor."
If a gag rule is rejected, and a full-blown debate on various amendments permitted, perhaps public attention can be accurately focused on the true nature of the controversy. At bottom it is not concerned with the freedom of someone who calls himself an artist. The issue before the House goes solely to accountability for the expenditure of public funds.
A specific case may serve to clarify the muddied waters. The NEA in August denied grants to four so-called "performing artists," Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, Karen Finley and John Hughes. The four have brought suit against the NEA, charging that the endowment had violated their First Amendment right to freedom of expression. The charge is preposterous.
Miller's performing art includes a monologue, "Civil Disobedience Weekend," which amounts to a homosexual orgy. Very well. Is this "art"? Could be. All kinds of things qualify in the eyes of some observers as art. Is Miller free to perform his monologue wherever he may find an audience? Absolutely. His co-plaintiffs are equally free. The odds against their being arrested and successfully prosecuted are a million-to-one.
But is any artist entitled, as a matter of right, to a grant from the NEA? The answer is positively no. This is the crux of the matter. Members of what is called the "art community" appear to be stone-deaf to this sensible position.
Karen Finley, who got an NEA grant last year, weeps that "a year ago I was in a country of freedom of expression; now I am not." Baloney! If she was free in 1989, she is equally free in 1990. She just doesn't have $5,000 of the taxpayers' money. A million other professed artists don't have grants either.
Congress has a responsibility to prevent the abuse of public funds. It is surely the prerogative of Congress to impose conditions upon expenditures. It is done all the time, in every branch of government.
In this instance Congress would be acting within its recognized power to say simply that grants may not be given for art that is "obscene" as the Supreme Court has defined the term. If grantees object, let them refuse the grants. It's that simple.