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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

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Legislative Update

Congress Begins the Long Haul toward the 2012 Budget

NASAA Legislative Counsel Thomas L. Birch

Typically, the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives begins drafting its legislation in early June and sends the funding bills to the floor for votes by the middle of the month. The Senate usually follows suit, taking up its versions of the appropriations measures in committee in late June and early July. Last year and other years before were not at all typical. The fiscal year 2011 funding was finally decided halfway through the fiscal year, with the passage in April 2011 of all 12 appropriations measures wrapped into a single omnibus funding. In the House, only two of those bills were ever approved by the Appropriations Committee. In the Senate, all but one of those bills—the legislation for Interior appropriations including funds for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)—had been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but none of them ever went to the floor individually for votes.

This year looks to be more of the same. Congressional staffers have suggested that it could be another long year of wrangling over funding solutions before a final budget product is produced in the form of appropriations legislation ready for the president to sign. Advocates should not expect to see an appropriations measure with definitive spending levels for the arts until after the 2012 fiscal year begins in October—possibly well after. That, at least, is what the prognosticators suggest at this early point in the budget process.

The budget resolution—the first step in developing an outline to guide the appropriators in their decisions about programmatic spending levels—has passed the House. The Senate took up the House-passed budget resolution as well as the president’s budget proposal, and failed to pass either one. With the partisan divide created by the differences between President Obama's 2012 budget proposal and the budget measure developed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, and passed by the House on a party-line vote, there appears little likelihood that the House and Senate can come together on an agreement about the details of a budget resolution.

In the meantime, the Interior Appropriations subcommittees have been given their spending allocations, and funding cuts will be necessary to meet those targets. In the Senate, the Interior appropriators are expected to cut as much as $2 billion from the programs under their jurisdiction. That's a hefty amount of spending in a bill that typically totals out at $28 billion.

The NEA has already taken its first share of spending cutback in the name of budget control and deficit reduction, with a drop from $167.5 million in 2010 to $155 million in 2011. For 2012, the Obama administration has proposed a further funding drop for the arts to $146.255 million. The president's depressed funding proposed for the arts endowment makes it difficult for Congress to hold funding at even the current level.

In early May, the House Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations held its hearing on the NEA 2012 budget proposal, with testimony from the NEA chair, Rocco Landesman. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), the subcommittee chair, opened the hearing with the warning that "intense competition for federal dollars" demands that legislators in Congress examine not only the size of the budget proposed but also the quality of programs funded to serve their constituents, so as not to erode the support the NEA has enjoyed in Congress. "It is the role of this subcommittee," Simpson said, "to ensure that we don't lose that support." Simpson is a champion of the arts endowment who wants to ensure its smooth passage through a potentially perilous process in the House of Representatives.

In his testimony, Landesman presented to the subcommittee the Obama administration's FY2012 budget proposal of $146.255 million for the arts endowment, a decrease of 13% from the 2010 level of appropriations, which he said was "consistent with the agency's Fiscal 2008 budget. . . . We have worked to make the smartest decisions possible within the current fiscal reality." Landesman referred to the state arts agencies as "key partners in so much of the agency's work."

The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee may be expected to begin drafting a 2012 appropriations bill in June. The Senate, which does not plan a hearing on the NEA budget proposal, would follow thereafter. Whether either chamber then moves forward on floor votes before the August recess is an open question. It is important to recognize that the strength of political advocacy for the NEA budget lies on Capitol Hill with senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle; that moderate leadership in the House, particularly in positions on the Appropriations Committee, accounted significantly for the final outcome on funding for the NEA at $155 million for the current year.

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