Remembering Ronald Reagan and the NEA
Sunday is the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth. Among much else, one thing for which the late president is remembered is devastating the already small budget of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Public debt roughly tripled during Reagan's eight years in office. Federal spending rose 25%, and the federal workforce did not get smaller. But, despite this overall expansion, he also presided over the first steep decline in NEA funding.
The chop came as part of a larger Republican plan to privatize former public services -- a trickle-down move that continued through the next three presidencies, Republican and Democratic alike. The NEA budget has never recovered.
Reagan's first NEA appropriation totaled just under $143 million. Merely to keep pace with inflation, his final allotment eight years later would have had to reach a minimum of $194 million.
It didn't. The actual sum was $171 million -- a 12% slide in spending power during Reagan's two terms in office. Since then, the NEA budget has continued to slump.
At a Reagan-birthday banquet Friday in Santa Barbara, conservatives gathered to party like it was 1980. In her keynote speech, Alaska half-term Gov. Sarah Palin blasted what she said was out-of-control growth in government spending today.
It's often hard to know what Palin is talking about, but she couldn't have been talking about the arts. The NEA's current budget stands at a puny $168 million, less than when her idol left office. Inflation adjusted, that's a 48% decline in NEA spending since Reagan went to Washington 30 years ago.
Who said government never gets smaller?
-- Christopher Knight
Photo: The program at a Reagan centennial banquet in Santa Barbara; Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images