Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Election and the Future of the NEA

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

What is the Future of the NEA post election?
The election has everyone on a high anxiety level.  No matter which one is your guy, you wonder: will he win, how will the swing states go?  Is Hurricane / Tropical Storm Sandy a game changer in terms of voter turnout?  Will Latinos and young people turn out?  Will women support the GOP?  It’s a cliffhanger and the country is on edge - waiting, nervously.

This has certainly been one of the hardest elections to figure out in a long time - in terms of where candidates stand, and what specifically they advocate.   Increasingly, candidates for all offices make conflicting promises to various segments of their potential voter universe.  At the higher levels, it is virtually impossible to deliver on all the promises made.  Yet increasingly too, core bases want to hold the feet of their successful candidates to the fire.  They want promises made to be promises kept.  Doesn’t always work out that way.  Some promises get kept because others cannot be.  Politics is a strange occupation.

I have been talking to scores of arts leaders around the country over the past three weeks - about the level of the threat this year to the arts and specifically to the NEA, and what kinds of strategies we ought to adopt in response to the final outcome.  There is real concern out there in our sector.  The future of the NEA is the elephant in the room, and I am surprised I haven't seen more public talk about the threat - including more blogs on what we should do.  While some people simply cannot imagine the elimination of the Endowment as a possibility, and like Ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, refuse to even accept the possibility, some see Armageddon on the horizon.  Others aren’t so sure.   Almost everyone believes elimination of the Endowment would be a disaster, and huge cuts would have drastic consequences for us.  There are lots of behind the scenes strategies being considered, but in order for any to work, there will need to be a massive showing by our community that elimination of, or even drastic cuts to, the NEA is not just ill considered and damaging policy, but that it is UNACCEPTABLE.

In this election it is hard to know exactly where Romney stands on the arts.  (Obama is seemingly supportive, but he cut the NEA budget last year with no apparent outcry to do so from any quarter.  So while he is nominally a friend - as is, theoretically, the Democratic party - one should not be shocked that in times of difficult decisions  - often times our supporters end up fair-weather friends, who - regrettably, but without more than hand-wringing - are prepared to throw us under the bus.  At the least, it may be unreasonable (and unwise) to expect they will draw any lines in the sand in our defense.)  I hope I am wrong.

Romney says he likes some of what the NEA does.  And given his background and the underlying cultural ethos of the Mormon Church, I believe he does at least have some appreciation for the value of the arts.  That however seems clearly not enough for him to draw any line of his own in our defense.  Where does he stand - exactly?  Hard to say.  Initially (in a USA Op Ed piece back in 2011) he talked about cutting the agency’s budget substantially:
“Enact deep reductions in the subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Legal Services Corporation.”
Then, as the  campaign got going, he upped the ante as it were and called for the elimination of funding to the Endowment in an interview in Fortune Magazine as reported by the Huffington Post and others, and ala a Sam Brownback and others in his party, and harkening back to Reagan’s position in 1980, Romney pointed to the private sector as the preferable source of arts funding.
“... there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs -- the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to strand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”   
On his current website, he seems to have backtracked slightly to now favor (again) a “reduction’ in the NEA subsidy”.
The Federal Government Should Stop Doing Things The American People Can’t Afford, For Instance:
Reduce Subsidies For The National Endowments For The Arts And Humanities, The Corporation For Public Broadcasting, And The Legal Services Corporation — Savings: $600 Million. NEA, NEH, and CPB provide grants to supplement other sources of funding. LSC funds services mostly duplicative of those already offered by states, localities, bar associations and private organizations.”
BTW - That’s not quite accurate.  NEA grants leverage local funding, not supplement it.  There’s a difference.  'But for' the NEA grants there might not be certain other local supplemental funding.  It is the NEA required match in some instances, and the imprimatur of worth and excellence in others, that helps its grantees leverage local funding.

The budgets of these four agencies are roughly as follows:

NEA / NEH - approximately $145 million each x 2 = $290 million
PBS - approximately $325 million
LSC - approximately $425 million

That’s a total of $1.040 billion.  If you want to save $600 million, you need to cut each budget by about 60%.

It really isn’t accidental that these agencies are all included in this example of what to cut.  All are identified (correctly or incorrectly) with the liberal left and all are criticized by the right as promoting in some way a leftist agenda and with siding with forces that are opposed to conservative values.  While many may disagree with such a characterization, from a political standpoint it isn’t totally unreasonable.   Clearly, over time,  the arts have become a symbol for the core conservatives.  Because of his public pronouncements aimed at appeasing this segment of his base, and because, if elected President, he will not be able to make good on all his promises to that base (no President can make good on all his promises to various interest groups), cuts to, or elimination of, the arts may be a “bone” he has to throw to that core.  Romney has boxed himself (and us) into a corner, from which it will be more difficult to move away from.

Is one of these agencies a bigger target than the others?  I don't know.

Because candidates now seem to promise everything to everybody, it is hard to actually know who stands for what.  I think the only prudent thing any interest group can do is to assume a worst case scenario and plan for it in terms of its strategy to protect its interests.

There will be forces in the conservative movement, and possibly in the new Congress (especially if the GOP wins the Senate and / or more Tea Party members get elected) that will argue with the new President that he should eliminate these agencies -- not just reduce their budgets.  For many ideologues on that end of the spectrum, these agencies are symbolic of a government spending program that has expanded into clearly improper areas in which government has no business.  For a few this ideology is so sacrosanct that even the demonstrable result of the loss of jobs (ostensibly the antithesis of the Romney / Ryan promise and the whole underpinning of their road to the White House) notwithstanding, cannot move them from their position.  What will the new President’s response to that kind of pressure be?  Again, hard to know for sure.

In the worst case scenario, elimination of the agency would have a catastrophic negative impact for the sector.  A 3 to 1 loss of the size of the agency’s budget  (to factor in lost leveraged local funds) - for a total of near a half billion dollars - would doubtless mean the potential closure of a dozen state arts agencies, half the regionals, and hundreds of programs of local arts organizations, some of which organizations themselves might not survive so easily.  Hundreds if not a thousand plus jobs lost, and potential significant negative consequences to local facilities operations, tourism and hospitality businesses, and after or out-of-school arts programs.  Those are the obvious and immediate impacts.

There would be other consequences.  Such a catastrophe would put extreme pressure on local foundation funding to try to minimize or reduce the negative consequences of the Endowment’s elimination, and that pressure would call for private funding to make ever harder decisions about what would survive and what would not.  Increased territoriality and self interest could wreck havoc on decades long efforts to reduce competitiveness and build a sense of community within the arts sector - which sense helps foster cooperation and collaboration.  Younger arts administrators would find even  fewer job openings and means to advance their careers within the field.  The increased pressure and stress would affect us all as we struggle for survival.  Artists would find fewer opportunities in communities across the nation.   America would have the distinction of being one of the few western nations on the planet that did not have some official cultural support agency.

A logical argument that may be persuasive with the public and the media, but not necessarily politicians for whom logic is often just a nuisance, is that elimination of the entire NEA budget is but a grain of sand in the Sahara desert of debt; that the NEA leverages multiple times its cost; that it creates jobs and generates significant economic activity resulting in increased tax revenue at all levels.   Moreover, the NEA’s paltry allocation is less than a whole host of other government expenditures that are questionable on any level - including the $445 million going (last year no less) indirectly to Liberty University (the evangelical institution started by Jerry Falwell) in the form of Pell grants, or the $175 million  spent in 2010 by the Department of Veterans Affairs to maintain  hundreds of buildings it doesn’t even occupy.  And the war in Afghanistan was costing us some $300 million PER DAY - Twice the annual NEA Budget.

Assuming arguendo the damage was limited to an across the board 60% reduction of the Endowment's budget, (a 60% cut in the NEA would exceed even the cut made by Reagan by in 1981), that opens up several questions:

  • Would that cut be made across the board to the agency’s budget - of which 40% goes to the states on a per capita basis, with the remainder allocated to the Endowment for its grants programs and operations - or would there be a clamor for more of the money to stay as local allocation?  Remember that anything less than elimination of the agency by zeroing out its funding may be unacceptable to a core base of Romney’s conservative / Tea-Party constituency, and so the argument that this is money that goes back to each state and ultimately district may be more appealing to legislators than a blanket across the board cut to that revenue stream.  
  • How much of the cut would come from the Endowment’s staffing operations?
  • If money earmarked for state agencies was reduced, would some state legislatures which had provided state support to match the Federal money (required under the NEA rules and enabling legislation), lessen or eliminate their contribution - at least to the extent it was no longer required to meet the diminished Federal allocation match?
  • How much local funding would dry up because of leverage lost due to reduced Federal agency grant awards being smaller - or non existent?  
  • Would things like research disappear in favor of continuing granting programs, or would the reverse be true?  
Jobs would still be lost.  Programs would still be cut - which ones would remain to be seen.  The NEA itself would need to operate on more of a skeleton crew.

What we do know is that Romney, like virtually all Presidential candidates of the last quarter century, has made promises to factions within his party that he simply cannot keep.  Too many variables are not within his control, and too many promises were impossible to meet even before they were made.  Comes with the territory no matter who occupies the White House.  So the question is where on the spectrum of what to give up (by way of apology and symbolism from a new President to his constituents) do the arts fall?  I don’t know the answer to that question, but my gut tells me we are vulnerable.

What can we do?  The more “cover” or face saving means that we can provide anyone (including a new President, Administration or potentially supportive members of Congress), the easier it will be for them to support some position that benefits us.  The best defense is to be on the offense.  The best kind of “cover” is demonstrable voter demand for our position.  If enough voters in a given district, or state, or across the country demand something, politicians will virtually always meet that demand.  But it has to be a large number, and the demand must be vocal.  So the best thing we can do is generate evidence of that kind of voter support.  We can do that by a massive contacting of the White House and Congress, and by public support (via meetings, rallies, demonstrations and flash mobs that generate media coverage).

These kinds of things:

  1. Identify and engage Personal contacts with Romney, his key appointees, transition staff, first lady.
  2. Identify and engage Personal contacts with legislators in the new Congress, especially key committee chairs.
  3. Develop and deploy a Massive letter writing, phone call, email barrage of Congress and the White House.  Massive means tens (and maybe hundreds) of thousands of such letters and phone calls, not just hundreds.  
  4. Raise and donate money to the Arts Action Fund & others to hire real lobbyists.  Immediately.
  5. Schedule local town halls, public rallies, flash mobs and the like. Generate media coverage of local outrage.
  6. Schedule meetings with newspaper editorial boards asap.  Get op eds aimed as much at Congress as White House.
  7. Stakeholder mobilization - PTA, Teachers, Chambers of Commerce, Tourism industry
  8. Exploit the nationalistic pride appeal - does America really want to be gthe only western power not to support a cultural agency.
Normally, the prudent protocol with a new incoming Administration, is to amass your data and stories to make your case, and present that case to key members of the transition team as the same begins to act.  But as the new President must present his budget for the next fiscal year (October 2013 to October 2014) by the first Monday in February, and because (depending on the composition of the new Congress) there may be a lot of pressure to eliminate the Endowment altogether, we ought to begin to act to try to influence whether or not there are any funds in that budget for the Endowment at all when that budget is presented to Congress.

We need to think this week on how to begin to mobilize the entire field beginning at 12:01 am on November 7th --- to contact each member of the new Congress, plus the White House with the insistent and consistent message to FULLY FUND THE NEA.  We do not want a budget submitted to Congress that has no provision for any funding to the NEA in it.  That will make getting funds axiomatically more difficult.  We ought to do all the things and more listed earlier to try to make our case, and while we need to be respectful and courteous at all times, we need to be firm in our position that cuts to - let alone elimination of - the Endowment is simply UNACCEPTABLE.  That is the message to firmly carry to every member of Congress and to the White House.  Such cuts or elimination will costs jobs.  Local jobs. Lots of middle class jobs.  And it will harm local communities and economies, and kids. (And while I very much appreciate the argument centering around the intrinsic value of the arts on myriad levels, that is not going to be a persuasive argument in this kind of fight.)  This will not be a time to be too timid in what we want.

It's true that we have more time to ultimately fight our fight.  The Budget Process (which, BTW, is the real chief business of Congress - not passing new laws) takes a long time and is very complex and plodding. But while the process takes time, many of the initial "early on" decisions all but determine the final outcome - which can often end up mere symbolic process itself.   So the smart thing to do is to begin now.  We cannot afford to be complacent.  We simply aren’t powerful enough to weather the storms that will come.

Note on the December 31 Fiscal Cliff Armageddon Scenario:  If the old (current) Congress fails to pass legislation this year regarding continuation of some or all of the Bush tax cuts, then we will have an automatic return to the Clinton era tax levels as of December 31st - which will means significant across the board tax increases, plus huge spending cuts to defense and to other spending programs will automatically be triggered.  No one wants that to happen, but there is no guarantee Congress will, in fact, work together to find a consensus solution.  If they fail, the NEA along with almost all other agencies and programs may be the bystander victims.  If that happens, it will be very hard to find anyone to support us for we will be small potatoes in the overall scheme of things - basically irrelevant to the challenges on the table.   Not likely, but a lot of disasters are not likely.

I hope all this turns out to not  be the case - a waste of our time.  I hope that a re-elected Obama Administration will continue to support the NEA (and not cut us more); and / or that a new Romney Administration will reconsider and likewise support the NEA.  But I know this:  we cannot afford, as a sector, to fail to act to protect ourselves as best we can, and that means all of you out there need to start now to think about how you might address whatever scenario plays itself out.  I guarantee you other interest groups will be doing just that.   Were the unthinkable to happen and the Endowment were to be eliminated, it would take a long, long time to re-establish.  Maybe as long as a generation.  If my leveraged half billion dollar impact is anywhere near correct, multiply that by twenty years and think about what that loss of funds might mean to the sector over two decades.  Whether or not you are a current NEA grantee or direct beneficiary, a strong, healthy Endowment is valuable to the health of the arts ecosystem in America.  It is important to, and benefits, all of us, no matter what we do.  And if it is eliminated or suffers drastic cuts, do not think it will have no impact on you and what your organization does.  It will.  And you will feel it.  The time to think about all this is right now.  You should have some idea what you are going to do at 12:01 am on November 7th.

So Please Do This no matter who wins next week:  (sorry to be repetitive)

  • Identify arts supporters in your sphere who may have a personal contact with a new (or current)  White House, and with the newly or re-elected Congress.  Ask them to make those connections by December 1, 2012 to lobby for NEA support.
  • Begin  to put in place mechanisms that will rally your local people to write letters, send emails, and make phone calls; 
  • Encourage all the arts in your area to set meetings with elected officials now; 
  • Begin plans to stage meetings, town halls, rallies and flashmobs that will register with locally elected officials and the media;  
  • Begin to talk to stakeholders in the community that will carry OUR message forward - the PTA, Chambers of Commerce, Teacher groups, Restaurant Associations and Tourism groups. Ask them to help and figure out a way to follow up with them, because if you don’t follow up - they likely will not act as you want them to; and finally,
  • Raise money to fund some kind of lobbying effort in D.C.   Work with your local, state, regional, national and AFTA advocacy organizations.  
Alas we don’t have an iconic Big Bird or adorable Tickle Me Elmo to rally around. All we have in the final analysis is ourselves.  But do not underestimate how powerful we can be.  IF, and it’s a BIG IF, we act soon and massively.  Perhaps on a grander scale than we have ever had to mount before.  Think of it as the biggest collective performance of our lifetimes.  The audience awaits.

Please pass this on so that more people will at least think of the issues.  Thank you.

Have a good week.

Don’t Quit