Still On the Hunt

By Richard E. Cohen and National Journal

May 23, 1997

After making scant progress on eliminating federal agencies during the past Congress, conservative Republicans are looking for new ways to skin the cat. Some are setting more-modest goals in the hope of winning increased support, although they still face formidable obstacles.

House GOP leaders have launched an attack on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an effort that in the past has generated intense controversy despite the agency's relatively small budget of $100 million. Several junior Senators continue to call for more-sweeping proposals to close as many as three Cabinet departments. But other Republican advocates of downsizing government contend that their less ambitious plan to scrap federal arts funding is more practical.

"We have to learn how to eliminate agencies," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, who has spearheaded an effort to shut down the arts endowment. "We have to build the case and shame the proponents into acknowledging that they are wasting taxpayers' money. . . . If we beat the myth once, we can beat it over and over again." Arts agency advocates, who have influential backers in the news media, respond that the program plays a vital role in spurring private-sector financing for the arts.

The NEA's critics concede that they face an uphill battle to close the agency over President Clinton's opposition. But they plan to wield the majority party's procedural tools, especially in the House, to force NEA supporters to spend considerable time and political capital to rescue the program.

House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas, sensitive to earlier criticism that the attacks on federal arts funding were directed at specific controversial artists, contended in May 13 testimony before Hoekstra's subcommittee that Republicans strongly support artistic freedom. But, Armey added, "we are not being responsible if we continue to throw taxpayers' money at a program that has done little or nothing for the arts . . . and that properly should not even be a function of a free government."

A 1995 agreement, hammered out in the House, reduced funding for the NEA from its previous annual level of $168 million. House Appropriations Committee chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., has indicated that his panel will include no money for the arts endowment when the House this summer considers the funding bill for the Interior Department and related agencies, one of which is the NEA. That would prevent NEA allies, because of procedural rules, from even offering an amendment during the House floor debate to restore any funding to the agency. Hoekstra contends that his careful oversight of the arts endowment is the first such review since 1979 of the program, which the appropriators have funded since 1993 without a legislative authorization. He said that his subcommittee plans to issue a report on its findings during the next two months.

As for the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said during a May 20 press conference that he does not believe that the federal government should subsidize the arts. But overall, the endowment's supporters would probably have a more sympathetic audience in the Senate, where looser procedural rules would also make it easier than in the House for the NEA advocates to carry their fight to the floor.

The fight over the arts endowment contrasts sharply with the broader campaign for reducing government that is being waged by a handful of Senate advocates. These five first-term GOP Senators are pushing separate proposals to eliminate the Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development Departments. For one, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., acknowledged that shutting down Cabinet departments will take time. "They weren't built in a year," he noted at a May 15 press conference with the other four Senators, "and they won't necessarily be eliminated in a session."

Brownback, who also pursued the initiative when he served one term in the House, said that a majority of the public thinks that the government is too big. But he and the others appeared sensitive to criticisms that the GOP's 1995-96 budget-cutting efforts were too harsh. "This is not about padlocking the Forrestal Building," which houses the Energy Department, Brownback said. "These are large, complicated agencies, and it takes a lot of thought" to replace them.

Likewise, Sen. Rodney D. Grams, R-Minn., said the drive to close Cabinet departments was not without careful deliberation. "This is not an assault on the federal government," he said. "This is an effort to improve and streamline the government." Brownback noted that Senate Republicans are no longer pushing to close the Education Department, because that proposal leads "people to say that you are against education."

Still, the activists received little encouragement from the five-year budget agreement between Clinton and Republican congressional leaders. The budget pact does not call for dismantling a single federal agency--even though Grams said that Lott earlier had encouraged conservatives to pursue their effort to dispose of Cabinet departments.

Some conservatives have already criticized the budget negotiators' failure to make more significant government cutbacks. "While the congressional leadership agreed to $30 billion in new White House initiatives, they received no commitment to eliminate any wasteful program in exchange," wrote Scott A. Hodge, a fellow in federal budgetary affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

According to Hoekstra, advocates of agency closings must cast the debate in human terms so that the public can better understand their goals. For instance, he's been pointing out that the cancellation of $35 billion in federal guarantees for public housing units would permit officials to write a $70,000 check to each of 500,000 families.

With the hard work yet to come on crafting the details of federal spending, proponents still have the opportunity to make their case for streamlining the Washington bureaucracy. By now, however, they should have learned that no federal agency dies a painless death. After all, no Cabinet department has ever been eliminated.

By Richard E. Cohen and National Journal

May 23, 1997