The Trump administration’s plan to defund the arts is grounded in a rhetoric of fiscal responsibility. The 2018 budget proposal, which advises to do away with agencies such as the NEA and NEH, could be met by growing bipartisan opposition.
The proposed budget for federal discretionary spending for fiscal year 2018, requests the dissolution of independent federal agencies directed towards the arts. If Congress were to approve the proposal, the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) $148 million budget, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) $148 million budget, the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) $230 million budget, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s (CPB) $445 million budget would all be eliminated. Together, these constitute 0.02 percent of the total federal budget.
These cuts are proposed alongside major slashes to the budgets of both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the State Department, by 31 percent and 29 percent respectively. All this comes in the wake of major increases in spending for Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and Defense. The latter will see its budget increase by 10 percent, the greatest of all increases, from $522 billion in 2017, to $574 billion in 2018.
Despite the comparatively small percentage of spending towards the arts, the Trump administration plans to defund these agencies has prioritized fiscal responsibility arguments. The director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, Mick Mulvaney, declared, ““When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was: can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will.”
The NEA and NEH are federal agencies and therefore cannot lobby for their own continued existence. Nonetheless, at a legislative level, the proposal for abolishment of these programs has witnessed condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans. Key Republican politicians have publicly announced their support for continued funding. These include Senator Lisa Murkowski, Representative Mark Amodei, Senator Susan Collins, and Representative Leonard Lance.
A bipartisan letter signed by 24 Senators in mid-February asserted that fiscal support for the arts was “pivotal for the advancement of our education and economy.” Bipartisan opposition to Trump’s policies will likely continue to blemish a crisis-ridden GOP controlled political landscape.
In the wake of the failure to implement healthcare reform, Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 will not mend any Conservative rifts. This is merely a budget document and therefore requires Congressional approval to repeal the legislation that established these federal bodies. Stiff opposition from both sides of the political spectrum is likely.
While a rhetoric of fiscal responsibility is used to condemn the NEA and NEH, opponents of the proposal illuminate the economic incentive to maintain them. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the arts and culture sector to be a $704 billion industry, contributing to 4.2 percent of U.S. GDP.
Federal arts organizations are shown to play a vital role in a cultural economy which relies on the federal stimulus they provide. The agencies encourage leveraging of private, local, and state funding for cultural enterprises. Educational entities, libraries, and museums all benefit. In 2016, the $47 million in funds the NEA sent to fifty U.S. states proved vital in leveraging up to $368 million from state governments.
From a socio-economic perspective, the National Humanities Alliance executive director, Stephen Kidd, argued that the cuts would have severe consequences on underserved communities, stating that, “It would deeply affect access to and participation in the humanities programs that help to bridge differences in communities and help to ensure that the cultural heritage of both rural and urban communities around the country is preserved.”
Supporters of the bill disagree, arguing that a future without the NEA and NEH encourages a free art market devoid of Washington oversight, citing the existence of a flourishing art culture prior to the establishment of these bodies in 1965.
As it stands, the probability of Trump’s budget passing Congress is small. All Democrats, and some Republicans, are against the proposal. Yet, as the budget is negotiated and becomes less problematic for Republican legislators, initiatives for the arts will likely be quick to fall off the radar.
The budgets for the four arts organizations slated to be purged are negligible compared to the complete federal budget. Realization in the necessity of a small investment into the U.S. cultural economy, which requires these agencies to flourish, might continue to encourage increasing bipartisan opposition to the budget proposal. Time will tell whether the Trump administration’s rhetoric of fiscal responsibility will hold.