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The National Endowment for the Humanities Isn’t Shutting Down

Despite President Trump’s proposal to eliminate it, the agency says it “will continue to operate as usual.”

Signs at the Women's March on Washington (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)
Signs at the Women’s March on Washington (photo by Jillian Steinhauer/Hyperallergic)

On Monday, President Trump released his budget for fiscal year (FY) 2018. As Hyperallergic reported, the proposal calls for the elimination of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities (NEA, NEH), as well as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and other federal cultural agencies.

In response to the president’s budget, both the NEA and NEH submitted FY 2018 appropriations requests to Congress that ask for the amounts deemed necessary to shut down the agencies — $29 million and $42.3 million, respectively. The NEH also released a statement on the proposed budget that mostly summarized the news:

The White House has requested that Congress appropriate approximately $42 million to NEH for the orderly closure of the agency. This amount includes funds to meet matching grant offers in effect as of October 1, 2017, as well as funds to cover administrative expenses and salaries associated with the closure.

As NEH awaits Congressional action on the President’s proposed budget, the agency is continuing normal operations and will be making the next round of FY 2017 awards following the meeting of the National Council in July.

But the statement and appropriations request were interpreted by some as a sign of defeat; in particular, a widely shared tweet from the New York Review of Books hinted that the agency may essentially giving up on its own existence.

Confused by this interpretation of what I read as a pro forma comment from the agency, I reached out to NEH public affairs specialist Paula Wasley for clarification.

“NEH is not in the process of shutting down,” Wasley told me over email. “As an agency of the Executive Branch of the Federal government, NEH answers to the President and must support his proposed budget, including his request that Congress eliminate the agency.”

In other words, the NEH (and, presumably, the NEA) requested the money to pay for its closure because it had to. And if it hopes to survive this assault, it probably plans to continue following procedure and remaining nonpartisan. The NEA has been only slightly more vocal about Trump’s budget plans; it hasn’t released a statement this week, but when the proposal to eliminate the agency was first formally announced in MarchNEA Chairman Jane Chu expressed her team’s disappointment, then went on to note: “As a federal government agency, the NEA cannot engage in advocacy, either directly or indirectly. We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities.”

In her email to Hyperallergic, Wasley stressed that the president’s proposal is only the first step in the budget process:

For FY 2018, which begins on October 1, 2017, President Donald J. Trump has requested that Congress appropriate $42 million to NEH to meet grant offers and to cover administrative expenses needed for the agency’s closure. The President’s proposed budget, however, is only the first step in a long budget process. Ultimately, Congress will decide whether and to what extent to fund NEH for FY 2018, and the President will decide to sign or veto the relevant appropriations bill.

Both this and the agency’s previous public statement suggest that it’s looking to Congress to do the right thing and keep the NEH alive. As Wasley wrote:

Since Congress created NEH in 1965, the agency has issued more than 63,000 grants totaling more than $5.3 billion. This public investment has led to the creation of award-winning books, films, museum exhibits, spurred innovative research and discovery, and ensured the preservation of significant cultural resources in all 50 states. Congress may well consider these achievements and seek additional information directly from NEH in considering the agency’s value and whether to fund the agency for FY 2018 and beyond.

In the meantime, she noted, the NEH is using FY 2017 funds to maintain normal operations; it “intends to award additional grants following the meeting of the National Council on the Humanities in July … [and] will continue to accept grant applications for FY 2018 according to its usual deadlines.” The NEH, Wasley said, “will continue to operate as usual unless and until the President and Congress require otherwise.”

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