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Friday, February 10, 2012

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Legislative Update

Back to the Future: Congress Begins a New Legislative Session

NASAA Legislative Counsel Thomas L. Birch

Congress convened in mid-January to begin its second legislative session. Regarding appropriations, we might expect something of a rerun this year, such as proposals to eliminate or severely cut NEA funding. Again, arts advocates will look to shore up the support of Republican and Democratic champions who took up the cause in the 2012 appropriations process and defended the value of federal arts funding. . . .

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate convened in mid-January in time to get together for the president's State of the Union address and begin the second legislative session of the 112th Congress. Chances are the political picture focusing before us in 2012 won't differ much from what we saw in 2011. Again, expect the House to pass legislation with positions dear to Republicans but with no chance of passing the Senate, while Senate measures pushed by the Democratic majority in the other chamber never see floor action in the House. Very little of substance will end up on the president's desk. That is likely to mean, for example, no action on the long-delayed reauthorization of school aid and on the fix for the No Child Left Behind law.

So it goes—with the exception of appropriations, the one piece of legislative duty Congress still seems able to take to completion. Such was the case last year with the fiscal 2012 funding. We might expect something of a rerun this year. Fortunately, the task has been simplified, because the overall federal budget total was predetermined in last year's deal to increase the debt ceiling. So there's no need to waste time haggling over the macro numbers. With the failure of the supercommittee to come up with a plan for cutting the deficit, the matter of automatic spending cuts still looms equally over domestic and defense spending. But those won't take effect until January 2013, and between now and then Congress could change its mind or concoct a new plan.

The House Budget Committee chair, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), has said that Republicans would try to push through the House this spring a budget plan similar to that developed in 2011. Last year, Ryan's budget proposed eliminating funds for federal cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts. The document, which only serves to inform funding decisions in the House, said the arts subsidies go "beyond the core mission" of the federal government and could no longer be justified. Ryan's plan contended that NEA funding activities "are generally enjoyed by people of higher education and income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens." Fortunately, some of Ryan's Republican colleagues have a different position—members of the House who see the value of federal arts funds to serve rural and underserved communities across the country.

We might also expect the House Republican Study Committee, the most fiscally conservative caucus in the House, to put forth its plan for spending cuts again. The study committee last year listed elimination of funds to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Department of Education's arts education grants.

With that kind of rhetoric still in the Capitol Hill atmosphere, there likely will be proposals on the House floor again this year to eliminate or severely cut arts endowment funding, just as there was in the last legislative session. Again, arts advocates will look to shore up the support of Republican and Democratic champions on both sides of the Hill who took up the cause in the 2012 appropriations process and defended the value of federal arts funding.

But first, the process awaits the presentation of the Obama administration's budget request for fiscal year 2013. That detailed document is expected on the Hill by February 13. Last year, the president proposed cutting arts endowment funding from the 2011 level of $155 million to $146 million in 2012, which is where the arts budget landed in the final appropriations measure passed by Congress. The Obama budget proposal for 2013 will kick off the funding debate for this legislative session.

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