The Oppenheimer-opera-documentary grant

Terry Jeffrey
Posted: Nov 24, 2004 12:00 AM

One way you can look at a little spending item reported in fiscal 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts is that four median-income families of four paid most of their federal income-tax bills ($4,038 per family as calculated in 2003 by the Tax Foundation) so that the NEA could give $15,000 to the Iris Feminist Collective in Berkeley, Calif., in order for it to support a documentary that "will follow composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars as they create an opera based on the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer."
Of course, that's just one way of looking at it.

 Another way you can look at the Oppenheimer-opera-documentary grant is from the lofty perspective of our mountainous national debt.

 According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the federal government ran a $413 billion deficit in fiscal 2004. That pushed the national debt past $7.4 trillion.

 Because of this deficit spending, it might be that four median-income families did not in fact pay most of their federal income taxes to fund the Oppenheimer-opera-documentary grant. Since money is fungible, the income taxes from the four families might have gone to something else the government did -- such as arm our forces in Iraq or fund the FBI's counter-terrorism efforts. The four families might even have paid part of a Border Patrolman's salary.

 But if the government used up the taxpayers' cash funding things like that, it would have had to borrow the $15,000 it gave to the Iris Feminist Collective. That would mean our grandchildren are likely to pay interest someday on the loan Uncle Sam secured to subsidize a film on the making of the Oppenheimer opera.

 According to the CBO, the government paid $159 billion in "net interest" in fiscal 2004. If the government had shut down the departments of Agriculture ($20.7 billion), Commerce ($5.8 billion), Education ($55.7 billion), Energy ($23.3 billion), Housing and Urban Development ($30.4 billion) and Transportation ($13.9 billion), and the Environmental Protection Agency ($8.4 billion), it could have saved $158.2 billion -- or not quite enough to pay the interest.

 It would be nice to think our descendants will someday pay down our loans rather than simply pay the interest on them. But for that to happen, the government would have to run surpluses for many years.

 That has not happened in recent history. And the likelihood of it happening soon may be gauged by the budgetary trajectory of the National Endowment for the Arts.

 The 1996 Republican National Platform called for "defunding" the NEA. In 1997, a Republican House voted to do just that. But a House-Senate conference committee revived the agency, giving it $98 million. Even so, for the first time in almost three decades, the government ran a surplus ($69.2 billion) that year.

 Since then, however, Congress has abandoned fiscal restraint.

 In the catchall fiscal 2005 spending bill it approved last week, Congress provided about $121.26 million for the NEA, up about $291,000 from last year and more than 23 percent from 1998. The CBO is projecting a $348 billion deficit for fiscal 2005.

 This NEA budget might seem like chump change to elected officials habituated to spending more than $2 trillion in taxed-and-borrowed money every year. But it is not chump change to taxpayers. Using the Tax Foundation's calculation that the median-income family of four pays $4,038 annually in income taxes, it would take more than 30,000 families to fund the NEA.

 That brings us to another way of looking at the Oppenheimer-opera-documentary grant and the agency that funded it. It is through the eyes of the Constitution.

 Article 1, Section 8 provides a short list of things "Congress shall have the power" to do. The section was designed to limit the power of federal legislators. "It was intended," wrote Thomas Jefferson, "to lace them up strictly within the enumerated powers, and those, without which, as means, those powers could not be carried into effect." It says nothing about funding an arts agency.

 The 1965 law that created the NEA was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. It says nothing about the Constitution. But it does claim it "is necessary and appropriate for the Federal government to compliment, assist and add to programs for the advancement of the humanities and the arts by local, state, regional, and private agencies and their organizations."

 That means it is "necessary" for your family to be taxed so federal bureaucrats can give your money to the Iris Feminist Collective.

 Our constitutional republic flourished for 176 years before liberal Democrats discovered this "necessity." It may never be solvent again if, even in a time of war and mounting debt, conservative Republicans cannot discover the will to shut down the NEA.