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White House budget documents released Monday included troubling, if familiar, proposals for supporters of humanities and the arts.

President Trump for the third year called on Congress to wind down the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the two biggest backers of humanities research on college campuses as well as education programs across the country. While the humanities endowment budget is small compared to other agencies, it has played a major role in supporting research, the growth of the digital humanities and efforts to preserve historic documents.

The proposal fits a broader theme in White House budgets to curtail federal support for research more broadly. At the same time, no other research agencies have been targeted for elimination like NEA and NEH, which are relatively small but have significant impact on the work of academics in humanities departments when that support is limited.

Congress has ignored previous proposals from the Trump administration, however, and two letters are currently circulating among lawmakers that would call on appropriators to significantly increase the funding for those agencies.

A 2017 Republican Study Committee report argued that the federal government “should not be in the business” of funding the arts when nongovernmental support could be found. And the White House budget documents said activities funded by NEA and NEH are not core federal responsibilities and “make up only a small fraction of the billions spent each year by arts nonprofit organizations.”

Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, said that fundamentally misunderstands the public role of the NEH.

“The NEH is the only funder that has a national mandate to support the humanities in every corner of the country, and the NEH takes this mandate very seriously,” he said. “Small historical societies and museums are hard-pressed to find other sources of funding to preserve their collections or to digitize local newspapers. Put simply, support for these institutions saves cultural heritage that would otherwise be lost.”

Members of both parties in Congress have found that argument compelling in the last two budget cycles.

In the FY 2019 funding cycle, the NEA and NEH each received $155 million in federal support. For the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was the biggest appropriation since 2010.

The Title VI and Fulbright-Hays International Education programs -- which the White House again proposed eliminating this month -- received level funding at $65 million and $7 million respectively in FY 2019, for a total of $72 million.

“Fortunately, members of Congress understand the importance of training the next generation of speakers in an array of less commonly taught languages that are crucial for productive global engagement,” Kidd said.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said the real question was whether agencies like NEH get sufficient funding increases from lawmakers.

“I’m less concerned that it be eliminated than I am that it be funded adequately,” he said.

A letter being circulated by Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, calls on Senate appropriators to provide both NEA and NEH with $167.5 million in the FY 2020 cycle, a $12.5 million increase. A similar letter to House appropriators circulated by Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat and chair of the Congressional Humanities Caucus, calls for the same amount.

The Cost of Zeroing Out Humanities

Eliminating the NEA and NEH wouldn’t be free for the federal government. The White House proposed allocating $38 million to the NEH and $29 million to the NEA for the orderly closure of both agencies over two years.

NEH chairman Jon Parrish Peede said in a statement that nothing will change in the day-to-day work of the agency after the latest funding request.

“As NEH awaits congressional action on the president’s proposed budget, the agency is continuing normal operations and will announce our latest round of FY 2019 awards this spring,” Peede said.

Supporters of NEH have been quick to warn lawmakers about the effects of cutting the agencies in prior budget cycles. Just last week, researchers and others involved in higher ed trekked to Capitol Hill for a Humanities Advocacy Day to make the case for continued funding.

Paula Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, joined that trip and said she found support for the agencies in the House and Senate.

“As in 2017 and 2018, when the same proposal came from the White House, we are finding that the agencies have broad bipartisan support in the House and the Senate, where elected officials understand their value to the communities they serve,” Krebs said. “But it's important for all of us to keep the pressure on. We have to make sure to stay in front of legislators, reminding them about the value of the endowments and the good work they do, in communities and on campus.”

Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat and chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the endowments, called the Trump budget recommendations “irrelevant.”

“As chair of the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, I intend to work with Democrats and Republicans to fully fund the arts and humanities and strengthen the federal investment in cultural activities all across America,” she said in a statement. “The endowments are essential to preserving and cultivating programs that enrich people’s lives, stimulate local economies and support our veterans.”

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