Fighting for the NEH’s Future on Capitol Hill

By Stephen Kidd

The outlook for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is far more positive now than it was nine months ago when news leaked that the Trump administration would propose eliminating the agency, along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda (left) emphasized the importance of the NEH and NEA to American democracy while accepting the Freedom Award from the US Capitol Historical Society in September for his work creating Hamilton: An American Musical and the Hamilton Education Program. Wikimedia Commons

With the NEH under threat, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) mobilized grassroots advocates to send messages and make calls to Congress. We also encouraged college presidents, provosts, deans, and museum directors in key districts to make direct appeals to their congressional delegations. Scholarly societies, including the American Historical Association, mobilized their members to participate in these efforts and to travel to Washington to meet with members of Congress as part of NHA’s Humanities Advocacy Day. These efforts were complemented by op-eds and letters to the editor that made the case for the NEH in local and national outlets around the country.

Amidst the administration’s call to eliminate the NEH, this advocacy stimulated even more bipartisan support for the agency than it has enjoyed in recent years. When Congress finally completed its FY 2017 spending bill in May (more than halfway through the fiscal year) it included a $2 million increase for the NEH—a sound rejection of the administration’s proposal. In September, the House passed a bill that would fund the NEH at $145 million for FY 2018. While this is a nearly $5 million decrease from FY 2017 levels, it is fairly proportional to the reductions applied to other agencies to conform to the tight FY 2018 budget caps. Most importantly, it is a solid rejection of the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the NEH in FY 2018.

We are still awaiting the Senate’s proposed appropriation for the NEH, and are hopeful that it will be higher than the House’s. Even with these promising signs of bipartisan support, humanities advocacy remains crucial given the ongoing risk that the administration’s proposal to eliminate the NEH could gain momentum on the Hill. At the same time, given growing bipartisan support, this is also a moment to push for further increases.

That’s why we were thrilled to add some star power to the cause a few weeks ago. When the budget cuts were first proposed, Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father, Luis Miranda, approached us offering their help to ensure that the NEH and the NEA were not eliminated. Miranda was scheduled to receive the Freedom Award from the US Capitol Historical Society in September in recognition of his work creating Hamilton: An American Musical and the Hamilton Education Program. He and his team wanted to take that opportunity to bring a higher visibility to the humanities and arts work happening around the country every day.

Accepting the Freedom Award, Miranda noted that “without humanities and arts programs, I wouldn’t be standing here today.” He also underscored the importance of ensuring that all youth, rural and urban, have similar access. “The fact is,” he said, “that in places like Appalachia and California’s Central Valley and Native American reservations and the Mississippi Delta and vast swaths of the Great Plains, the private resources simply do not exist to provide kids with the kinds of programs that I was just lucky enough to grow up with. This is why the [NEH] and the [NEA] are so vital to our democracy. Without these resources, we are essentially telling these kids without access to the arts, ‘Your world is small. Don’t dream too big.’”

After the award ceremony, we moved on to the “Congress and the Humanities Showcase,” which recognized Congress for its ongoing support of the NEH and honored the creative and innovative work the NEH supports in serving K–12 students, veterans, tribal nations, and rural communities. Five NEH grantees presented their work, which was introduced by a bipartisan group of members of Congress. The showcase underscored the importance of the NEH to their communities.  

The following day, Miranda travelled around the Capitol with the NHA making the case for the importance of broad access to the humanities and arts. He joined a bipartisan group from the New York delegation and the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the NEH and NEA. He also thanked the chairs of the Senate Cultural Caucus, Congressional Humanities Caucus, and Congressional Arts Caucus.

We are grateful that Miranda has chosen to draw more attention to the important role that the NEH plays in providing access to the humanities in communities around the country. His advocacy comes at a pivotal time, as FY 2018 funding is being finalized. It also comes as an increasing number of representatives and senators—from both sides of the aisle—are recognizing the important role that the NEH plays in the communities they represent. Miranda’s time on the Hill, combined with the grassroots humanities advocacy that NHA members like the AHA have fostered over the past nine months, lead us to be increasingly optimistic about the future of the NEH.

Stephen Kidd is the executive director of the National Humanities Alliance.

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