Lately, the drill has become as inevitable as death, taxes and the failure to pass meaningful campaign finance reform. Every year about this time, certain elements in the House of Representatives vote to do away with the National Endowment for the Arts. It happened again last week in a House subcommittee.

And, just as inevitably, reason ultimately prevails. Either the measure will fail in the House, or the Senate will restore funding. Still, the debate is likely to fill the airwaves before that time. That's why it's important to understand the reasons why government-funded art should continue.We are tempted to quote study after study that shows the value of art and classical music on the development and education of children. Creative expression is indeed vital to the enhancement of cognitive skills. But the argument goes much deeper than that.

Fine art is vital to the health of any society. In its best forms, it enhances civility and develops a greater appreciation for life and nature. Its existence should not be left vulnerable to the winds and whims of the market.

In recent years, the National Endowment for the Arts has supported a few distasteful and destructive projects, but these make up a tiny portion of the endowment's total mission, and real efforts are under way to eliminate the truly exploitative and raunchy works. The overwhelming bulk of what the NEA funds is worthwhile. It includes money to keep school arts programs alive in rural Utah communities. On a larger scale, it supports the Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

Congress needs to ensure that NEA projects are wholesome and uplifting, and the agency ought to feel free to reject projects that don't meet that standard. Artists don't have an automatic right to public funding regardless of the content of their works.

But scuttling the NEA entirely would be unthinkable. So much of privately funded art and entertainment has become mindless and degrading these days, including most of what is on television. Left entirely to the free marketplace, art would lose its power to uplift and inspire.

Last year, Congress finally appropriated $98 million to the NEA, thanks in large part to support from Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett. This year, the Senate is likely to come through again. That's good, but the important thing is that Americans receive the greater message, which is that public art is vital to the health of the nation.

Maybe then the yearly bluster against the NEA would finally cease.