“The budget is lean and responsible -- we can fund the best of the best.”
That message came Tuesday from Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities , when pressed by members of a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee to respond to President Bush’s proposed fiscal 2008 allocation  to his agency.
Given that he is a presidential appointee, there was no reason to expect anything less than optimism from Cole. But given that the administration’s request of $141.4 million for the NEH would keep to the recent pattern of level or decreased funding, it was no surprise to hear some strong criticism of the budget coming from others in the room.
With new blood in charge of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies , came new promises to the agency that provides humanities grants and funds publishing projects in higher education.
“We’re going to give you a chance to be saved in ’08,” said Norman Dicks (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee, during a hearing to discuss the performance and needs of the NEH.
At a time of year when everyone in Washington is pushing for funding, and in a season on Capitol Hill when federal discretionary funds are again in short supply, it's unclear how much the Democratic House majority could push for and realistically expect for the NEH. (Dicks didn't put a price tag on his hoped-for increase.)
Both Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee praised Cole for his handling of the agency during tough budget times. Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) said Congress has shortchanged the NEH by $265 million by not keeping funding on pace with inflation. Last year, the House approved an amendment to add $5 million to the NEH's budget, but that money was not included in the end-of-year budget resolution with which Congress wrapped up spending for the 2007 fiscal year.
“I don't know how you've done what you've done," Moran said. "Each year we marginally try to meet your needs, but there’s been a gross under-funding of the humanities."
Still, Cole steered clear of criticism and kept to his line.
“We’re grateful for the budget and grateful for the support we’ve gotten,” Cole said.
“That’s a diplomatic response,” said Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.). "OMB will be happy with that one,” Dicks added.
Cole never formally asked for increased support, but he spoke of escalating current NEH projects, an indication that in his estimation, the agency could end up seeing more than what's proposed in the president's budget.
“[Cole] thinks we’re going to increase the budget," Dicks said to Moran.
The hearing, while mostly civil, included a memorable exchange between Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and several Democratic members of the subcommittee. After saying that he is "very impressed by the values brought by the NEH," Tiahrt added that "the problems [of under-funding] continue under the new sheriff." He challenged David Obey (D-Ind.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and the Democrats to go beyond vague promises.
"I'm glad [Tiahrt] promised more funding," Dicks said. "You'll get your chance to show your support," he told the Congressman.
One of the panelists, Henry L. Snyder, a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, said after the hearing that he was "very encouraged" and heard strong commitment from both sides of the aisle.
Snyder said what has suffered most as a result of flat funding is money for individual research grants.
“Considering that many colleges are growing and professors are taking on more students, they need more time to do the research that provides new scholarship," he said. "People in the humanities, unlike in science, have few sources for grants and rely heavily on federal money to fund their independent research."
Cole spent the majority of the hearing answering questions about what a stagnant budget has meant for the NEH, and how more money would help the agency. He said that only a few grants have gone unfunded and remained vague about where cuts have come.
Cole admitted that the We the People  initiative, which funds a range of projects related to the teaching and study of American history, has at its disposal only about half of the intended $100 million. He added that teacher education in history has been under-funded. When asked about priorities, Cole listed We the People as well as the Digital Humanities Initiative , which provides seed money for projects relating to the use or study of digital technology.
When Dicks questioned Cole about why, in tough budget times, a major grant was provided to Duke University for an endowed chair position, he answered that it was a matching grant program, and that the agency tries to spur private entities to increase humanities spending whenever possible. That instructor taught a series of seminars on American institutions and values, Cole explained, and Duke was given three years to triple the NEH grant.
“No matter what our budget is, we can’t do it alone,” Cole said. “Our job sometimes is to get the ball rolling for state and private matching funds.”
Pointing to a project that involves digitizing more than a century's worth of newspaper articles for public view, Cole said "we are proud of the role we are playing to democratize the humanities."
Both Dicks said Moran said they would support funding for projects that give the most people access to information about the humanities.
“It’s up to us to see that [the NEH] flourishes -- we owe it to the country," Moran said.