Supporters of the humanities were understandably concerned last week when the House Budget Committee called for eliminating federal funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and other cultural agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that the House Budget Committee has called for the zeroing out NEH’s funding. Its 2017 Budget Report contains the same language used in budget reports since FY 2012. As in previous years, the report states that cultural agencies go “beyond the core mission of the Federal Government,” that government support raises the “risk of political interference,” and that private sources alone should fund the humanities. Similar language has been included in a series of policy briefs issued by the Cato Institute since at least the mid-1990s.

The 2017 Budget Report is concerning in that it reflects a persistent ideological opposition to federal funding for humanities research, teaching, programming, and preservation. It also ignores two key facts about NEH and humanities funding: that NEH grants are peer-reviewed and that private funding for the humanities is limited and tends to have a much narrower reach than NEH funding.

That said, the resolution will likely have little impact on how the appropriations process proceeds this year and how much funding the NEH and other cultural agencies receive. Why is this the case?

  • The Budget Committee’s Budget Resolution and accompanying report sets the overall funding level for the government and lays out the committee’s vision for federal spending over a 10-year period. Aside from the overall spending level, the document is largely symbolic. It is used to assert the majority’s priorities for the media and as a rallying point for the party, but its programmatic recommendations are non-binding. It does not dictate funding levels for individual departments, agencies, or programs.
  • The Appropriations Committee and its twelve subcommittees—not the Budget Committee—decide how funds will be allocated among the departments, agencies, and programs that come under their purview.
  • The Budget Committee is not ideologically aligned with the Appropriations Committee. In recent years, the Budget Committee, particularly in the House, has been filled with many of the House’s most conservative members. By contrast, the vast majority of members of the Appropriations Committee are pragmatic and more moderate. More specifically, the Appropriations Committee is far friendlier to the humanities. Just last year, it approved a nearly $2 million increase for NEH, the first increase in 6 years. As the budget crises have unfolded on Capitol Hill in recent years, members of the Appropriations Committee, including Republicans, have become increasingly and even openly exasperated with the ideological rigidity of the Budget Committee.
  • As the economy has improved and increased revenues have undermined arguments for continued fiscal austerity, there are signs that more Members of Congress are willing to support humanities funding. Representatives Leonard Lance (R-NJ) and David Price (D-NC) wrote a letter to the Appropriations Committee requesting that NEH be funded at $155 million, a level that would increase its budget for FY 2017 by over $7 million dollars. When our advocates met with Members of Congress on Humanities Advocacy Day, they asked them to sign on to this letter and support an increase. In the end, 136 Representatives signed, including ten Republicans, eight of whom had met with our advocates. Last year, only 116 signed—including only four Republicans.

Given all this, the Budget Committee Report is not a good indicator of how Congress as a whole, or appropriators in particular, feel about federal investment in the humanities. That said, the opinions of the Budget Committee should not be dismissed. Many members of the committee are quite vocal. Their commentary promotes the perception that support for NEH is a partisan position and that Republicans who support federal funding have heterodox views. This perception could ultimately undermine moderate Republican’s support for the NEH and create pressure to defund the agency should Republicans control the White House and Congress. In summary, the Budget Resolution will likely have little impact on the appropriations process this year, but it is a reminder that advocates need to continue making the case for federal investment in the humanities.