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Monday, August 4, 2008

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Legislative Update

NASAA Legislative Counsel Thomas L. Birch

Appropriations on Hold as Congress Adjourns For August Recess

In this highly charged election year with both political parties looking to use legislative voting records to score campaigning points, there is no chance Congress can have its spending work done by the October 1 beginning of the new fiscal year. Republicans in the House have effectively halted action on funding measures through their efforts to use the appropriations process to force politically charged votes on offshore drilling and other controversial amendments aimed at addressing domestic energy production and the rise in gasoline prices.

A scheduled mark-up of the Fiscal 2009 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Bill before the House Appropriations Committee was abruptly adjourned on June 26 when Republicans tried to force the committee instead to take up the funding bill for the Department of the Interior—which includes money for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—with plans to offer a series of amendments which they suggested would aim at lowering fuel prices. The Interior spending bill approved earlier by the House subcommittee would increase the arts funding from $144.7 million in 2008 to $160 million in 2009.

It is clear that the Interior spending legislation and other appropriations bills are unlikely to see votes on the House floor before this session of Congress ends in October. With the House and Senate in recess for August, the Senate Appropriations Committee has at least approved all but three of the spending bills, although the Interior Appropriations Bill is not among them. So far, the House panel has approved just half the total number of money bills.

Only one appropriations bill has gone for floor votes in either chamber, with the House passing the funding for military construction and veterans affairs the last day of session before the August adjournment. Even then, Republicans moved to send the bill back to committee with instructions to attach their energy package to promote oil and gas drilling, an effort which was ruled out of order and tabled.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are looking to passage of a continuing resolution in September to keep federal programs funded at current levels into the next calendar year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told the Congressional Quarterly, "I hope we would do a continuing resolution until after Sen. Obama becomes president." Reid says he has no plans now to bring the Senate back for a lame-duck session after the November elections.

Artist Visa Bill Pending Senate Action

The Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) Bill, H.R. 1312/S. 2178, which passed the House of Representatives in April, is pending final approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee before going to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill would improve the reliability of the visa process by expediting the issuing of visas for foreign guest artists to a maximum of 45 days, with a waiver of the expediting fee for nonprofit performers and organizations.

Currently, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides "Premium Processing" on visa applications within 15 days for those able to pay an extra $1,000 fee, an amount largely unaffordable to most nonprofit arts organizations. Under the ARTS Act, USCIS would be required to treat as a Premium Processing case, free of additional charge, any arts-related visa petition that it fails to process within 30 days.

The Arts Require Timely Service Act has strong bipartisan support in Congress. The House bill, introduced by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) with the cosponsorship of legislators from both parties, passed the House by voice vote on April 1. The companion Senate bill, S. 2178, was introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT). NASAA is engaged in advocacy efforts with other arts advocacy organizations to ensure approval of the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the Senate floor before the end of the current legislative session.

Record Cosponsors for Artists' Charitable Deduction Bill

Legislation offering artists a fair-market value tax deduction for the donation of their works to museums and libraries has garnered a record number of cosponsors in the House, with a total of 105 Representatives signing on in support of H.R. 1524, the Artist-Museum Partnership Act. The measure, which has been before Congress for several successive sessions, was introduced in the current Congress by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the 2008 recipient of NASAA's Sidney R. Yates Award in recognition of exemplary advocacy for the arts on Congress.

The companion Senate bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), S. 548, currently has 30 cosponsors to the legislation, providing a full, fair-market value deduction for charitable contributions of literary, musical, artistic, or scholarly compositions created by the donor.

Keep abreast of current congressional news and federal legislative updates, and be sure to take advantage of NASAA's arts advocacy tools and services.