Much has been made about President Donald Trump’s proposal to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio, causing panic in public arts and the broadcasting world about the fate of the 50-year-old programs. Cutting federal funds would have some impact for PBS and NPR (although it would be negligible for the vast majority of Americans), but like all declarations made by our Commander-in-Chief, I’m highly skeptical that this latest GOP fever dream will ever become a reality.
Why? Because I don’t think Trump has the political skill set or legitimacy to outflank these four institutions, which are far more entrenched and powerful than many people give them credit for. Remember, it’s Congress that controls the nation’s purse strings and sets the budget agenda, not the Executive Branch. Sure, cutting these four agencies is red meat for some neo-conservative groups, but the political reality is that it’s nearly impossible for Congress to take away programs whose benefits are spread so evenly across all 435 congressional districts. Besides, these four programs combined budgets represent such a minuscule fraction of U.S. discretionary spending, that many in Congress will do a quick political calculation and realize the cost savings they might achieve won’t compare to the headaches they’ll face from constituents.
Congress will punt, the administration will deflect and deny and Trump will move on to his next 3 a.m. Twitter meltdown and non-denials about his links to the Russians and neo-Nazis. And that’s too bad because a conversation on public funding for the arts and media is an important debate this country needs to have. National Public Radio is one of the most trusted news sources in the U.S. and the baggage that comes from being in constant survival mode every time a Republican takes office might not be that great for its brand.
But before we get into a discussion about the future of any of these organizations, let’s examine these proposed cuts and see why it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever be enacted.
‘A Lot of Support from The American People’
Cutting federal funding for public broadcasting, the arts and humanities have been a conservative talking point since President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act in 1965 and the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967. Knowing that taxpayer funding of the arts and media is anathema to many in GOP, both the NEA and NEH have been careful to distribute grants they issue across all 50 states. Today both agencies enjoy support from high-ranking GOP senators, like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska who chairs a committee that oversees the endowments.
“I believe we can find a way to commit to fiscal responsibility while continuing to support the important benefits that N.E.A. and N.E.H. provide,” she said in a statement shortly after the cuts were proposed. Since 1995, about $18 million in grants have been sent to Alaska. Susan Collins of Maine and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia also signed their names last month to a letter urging continued support for the $300 million spent on the agencies each year. Representative Ken Calvert, a California Republican who chairs an important House appropriations committee said the ballooning federal deficit means “all sides would be taken into account” during budget talks, but noted “the N.E.A. and N.E.H. have a lot of support from the American people and members of Congress.”
And remember that both the NEA and NEH have been through this before. The Reagan administration tried to eliminate funding for the arts but ultimately caved amid pressure from actor Charlton Heston, who was close with the president. In the 1990s, House Republicans voted to abolish the agencies, but they again survived by adapting and abolishing grants to individual artists. By distributing funds directly to state arts agencies and nonprofits, the NEA avoided free speech fights over provocative artists who tested the GOP’s patience.
“My guess is — and it always happens — that you come out very strong on the opening day,” conservative firebrand and longtime NEA & CPB opponent Pat Buchanan said in an interview with the New York Times earlier this week, “and the arts community and the others will get to the Republicans and others and try to at least preserve these and keep them alive through the Trump era.”
Time To Rethink How We Fund Media and Arts
Yes, there are plenty of reasons to support public funding for both the arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, although a swift (yet highly unlikely) defunding of the program would not endanger either. National Public Radio would be largely unchanged, at least in major markets around the country. Some rural communities might lose their NPR stations, but hey, they overwhelmingly voted for Trump, so you know, tough luck.
If one looks at NPR’s annual $200 million budget, only about $300,000 of it comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — that’s slightly more than one-tenth of one-percent. PBS only gets about seven percent of its budget from the CPB. How is the rest of the CPB’s annual $445 million budget allocated each year? Mostly through grants to local stations in places like Appleton, Wis., Lubbock, Texas and Metairie, La.
Now a good portion of the money given to these communities is used to buy NPR programming, so defunding these stations could hurt NPR, but many analysts believe that is also unlikely. It would be far cheaper for most small market stations to completely cut their staffs and local news teams and instead run national NPR programming like “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition” and “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” around the clock. Major stations like WHYY in Philadelphia, WBEZ in Chicago, WNYC in New York and LA’s two NPR affiliates KCRW and KPCC (both of which I am a regular editorial contributor) will be fine because the bulk of their funding comes from private grants and listener contributions.
I’d like to see more of that — as someone who runs a media company that in part relies on reader contributions, I believe it’s incumbent on readers and supporters to help financially back any news source that provides them with information they value.
If you listen to NPR, then you should step up and support it. Same goes for the National Endowment of the Arts — whether you enjoy visual arts, the theater, dance or opera, it’s important to financially back the organizations to which you draw inspiration, even with small contributions. Keep in mind that every group that receives funding from the NEA and the NEH faces a matching requirement of one-to-one. That means that if an arts organization in Rhode Island is going to accept a $25,000 grant from the NEA, there must be someone locally to match the money with $25,000 of their own.
That’s why I’m skeptical that defunding either organization would lead to a tangible decline in the arts since there is already hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into these organizations from private groups and matching contributions. Yes, I support federal funding of the arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but I think there’s a lot of baggage that both sides carry in the relationship. Having to constantly defend one’s existence is a distraction from these group’s larger mission and a well thought out decoupling from the federal government might be to everyone’s benefit.