WASHINGTON -- There may be a problem in the mailroom of the House of Representatives.
Judging by legislation introduced Monday  by the chamber's Committee on Appropriations, which would cut the budget for the National Endowment for the Humanities in half next year, it seems the panel's members did not receive their copies of the recent report  from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which among other things called on governments and other funders to "significantly increase" their support for humanities and social science programs at all levels.
That framing isn't entirely fair, suggesting as it does that the lawmakers in question aren't acting purposefully in proposing to slash the budget of the nation's primary cultural agencies. (The National Endowment for the Arts would face a similar cut.) In a news release about the 2014 spending bill for Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, the head of the appropriations committee, citing the "difficult" economic environment, said the bill "seeks to protect vital programs that directly affect the safety and well-being of Americans, while dramatically scaling back lower-priority, or ‘nice-to-have’ programs.”
That phrasing builds on language contained in a House Budget Committee blueprint  in March that much more explicitly called for an end to federal spending on the cultural endowments.
"Federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can no longer be justified," the budget resolution said. "The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government, and they are generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens. These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference."
Efforts to cut federal funding for the humanities and the arts are anything but new; funding for the NEH has had a series of peaks and valleys, rising to roughly $150 million a year in the late 1970s, falling some during the 1980s, rising to roughly $170 million annually during the early 1990s, dropping sharply (to $110 million) in the mid-1990s, and then settling back in the $150-million-a-year range since then. Several of the previous efforts to slash the cultural endowments' budgets were driven by content concerns -- spillover from the arts endowment's Robert Mapplethorpe fracas at one point -- but a philosophical divide over the appropriateness of government funding for cultural activities has undergirded the debate throughout.
"Treating the humanities as nice and enjoyable, but not something that is particularly relevant to the functions of government, is an ideological perspective that really misunderstands the full scope and importance of the humanities and the NEH."
--Stephen Kidd, National Humanities Alliance
The relative stability of the NEH budget over the past decade (despite fairly constant downward pressure from the right political flank in most years) had suggested something of a détente in that battle -- which made the latest proposal a particularly bitter pill for humanities advocates. This is the biggest proposed cut in the NEH budget to have made it into legislative form in many years. (Another humanities-related agency, the National Historical Public Records Commission, faces another cut in its tiny -- $4.75 million -- budget, with a House panel proposing a 36 percent decrease.)
David Skorton, the president of Cornell University and a physician who has championed the humanities , said he saw the proposal as evidence that the NEH lacks the sort of legislative champions that cancer-fighting agencies like the National Institutes of Health and business-building agencies such as the Energy and Defense Departments have.
The NEH is also vulnerable, he said, because the country is "excessively vocationally oriented" right now, and advocates are currently struggling to make the case that grounding in the humanities prepares Americans for a career of creative problem-solving, communicating and collaborating. Skorton and Norman Augustine, who helped propel the country's recent focus on science and technology education and research with the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" report in 2005, co-wrote an essay in USA Today last month heralding the importance of the humanities .
Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, said he was struck by the stark difference in language between the rhetoric of the House budget resolution -- which portrays the arts and humanities as domains of the well-to-do -- and that of the arts and sciences academy's "The Heart of the Matter,"  which emphasizes the role of the humanities and social sciences in helping to democratize society.
"Treating the humanities as nice and enjoyable, but not something that is particularly relevant to the functions of government, is an ideological perspective that really misunderstands the full scope and importance of the humanities and the NEH," he said.
Corporate leaders and educators are focusing increasing importance on the need for all Americans to communicate effectively, think critically, and gain other "essential skills and habits" that humanities and social sciences education and research foster, he said. Yet "we have members of Congress who are really missing the boat and just focusing on some stereotype" of the humanities.
"The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government, and they are generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens."
--House Budget Resolution
Just as lawmakers have in recent months singled out National Science Foundation grants for social science that they consider frivolous or non-essential, especially as measured against potential cures for cancer, members of Congress might look at some of the research studies financed by the NEH and consider them to be superfluous.
But the agency spends millions of dollars every year on programs that are specifically designed to bring the humanities to low-income communities, and to encourage families to read together. It may well be true, Kidd said, that "the humanities have worked very well for the elite, giving them job skills that they're able to get because they've had experiences that the less-fortunate haven't." But the solution to that, he said, is to broaden access to the humanities, with federal and other support, not restrict them.
Added Skorton: "The NEH's programs are preparing people to play critical roles in what's happening in our society in the 21st century, whether it's analysts in our intelligence agencies or people who drive innovation in our companies. If the NEH's programs are not going in the direction that people want, let's debate those programs, let's debate those directions. Let's not gut those programs."