Americans for the Arts Action Fund PAC has released its 2016 Congressional Arts Report Card rating members of Congress on their support for the arts. Many lobby groups do such rankings as a way of “holding politicians accountable” for how they vote on issues the lobbyists care about. The rankings are then used to support or punish those who vote or don’t vote on issues the lobbyists designate and move agendas forward.
The rankings can be influential with the lobby groups’ members. Lobbyists use the ranking to determine who and how much money they give to members of Congress and get their members to contribute to candidates. PACs like the NRA can, through their influence, channel millions of dollars towards favored pols.
And the arts lobby? There’s this disclaimer in the Arts Report Card:
Unfortunately there were no specific recorded legislative floor votes that focused solely on the arts. As a result, the Arts Action Fund could not assign weighted grades to each Representative and Senator this year.
So how did AftAAFPAC score members of Congress?
We took a composite of their previous rating (when applicable) with a series of current “Arts Indicators” that they pro-actively participated in to assign a “Thumbs Up” as a symbol of confidence that these Members of Congress have demonstrated pro-arts support. These designations will also serve as a guide in distributing $100,000 in Arts Action Fund PAC gifts to incumbent candidates. If a Member did not receive a “Thumbs Up,” it means that they either previously earned a poor rating or did not take substantial pro-arts actions during the current Congress.
And what were these “arts indicators”? In the house, five of the 12 were for co-signing “Dear Colleague” letters supporting funding. Three were for membership in arts-related caucuses. Two were for votes (one for voting to “reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind,” and the other to “make permanent three critical charitable tax extenders, including the IRA Charitable Rollover.”). Another indicator was for “participating in the 2016 annual Congressional Arts Competition recognizing high school visual arts students from each participating U.S. Congressional district.” And the last was an “extra credit” category recognizing “exemplary pro-arts leadership.” The Senate ranking is similar – five letters, membership in one caucus, and two votes plus the extra-credit category.
Whew. Co-signing letters? Showing up for high school show and tell? Hardcore stuff. What do you get if you pass these onerous tests and are highly ranked? Perhaps a piece of $100,000 in Arts PAC gifts, which ain’t nothing but it’s not going to move the needle much.
On highly partisan issues, Congresspeople are scored for dozens of votes. Heritage Action for America PAC for example, ranks members on 57 votes or bills. Lobbyists watching and scoring so many votes have clout on moving their agendas. On issues they care about they get bills and legislation proposed and passed on many fronts.
And the arts? No arts legislation proposed or voted on. Sure appropriations for the NEA and NEH were approved as part of larger spending bills. But even there, as the chart to the right shows, the NEA budget over the past 32 years has not fared well. As the Report Card says, if the NEA’s 1984 budget had kept pace it would be $580 million this year instead of $148 million. By lobbying standards, arts lobbying has failed, with not enough clout even to get a bill that has something to do with the arts before Congress this year.
Of course there are many important issues before Congress, and Republicans were determined in this session not to move legislation forward. But are there really no arts or cultural issues or policies important to supporters of the arts that could have got a voice in the 114th Congress besides arts education and NEA/NEH budgets?
Behind most political lobbying efforts is usually some bigger vision. Political lobbyists work on accomplishing that vision on many fronts as they build constituencies. The arts are supposed to be big on vision. Unfortunately that vision didn’t appear in the official records of the 114th. Perhaps erosion of the NEA/NEH budgets is because arguing for funding for the arts has been our main issue rather than a consequence of a bigger, more urgent and inspiring vision. According to the Arts Report Card, the arts are a bipartisan issue at a time when division is the culture. If the arts are ever going to mean more to more people this seems like an opportunity to me.