Arts workers meet Dr. No


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What has Sen. Tom Coburn, the conservative Oklahoma Republican, got against art museum jobs?

In 2005, the Seattle Art Museum had just about put together financing to complete construction of an $85-million downtown sculpture park, which would knit together the city and a shoreline long cut off by freeways and train tracks. The state had contributed $5.4 million, the county $1.5 million, the city $4.2 million; private donors had made gifts, including art, for the Olympic Sculpture Park. Construction jobs were ready to go, and museum jobs to operate the park hung in the balance. Coburn, a former physician who has become the Senate’s self-styled Dr. No, tried to run it off the rails.


At issue was legislation that included $500,000 from the federal government. In what the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described as a ‘long and unusually personal’ exchange, which plainly surprised Senate colleague Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Coburn lambasted the broad public-private partnership as an ‘egregious’ example of wasteful spending. He lumped it in with Alaska’s notorious bridge-to-nowhere.

Now Coburn is trying to ensure that no art museum — or theater or other performing arts center — will be eligible forjobs funds in the federal stimulus package. A Coburn amendment to block such allegedly ‘wasteful’ jobs spending passed late Friday, 73 votes to 24. If the Senate bill passes Tuesday, as many expect, it will then go to a House-Senate conference committee, which will negotiate the differences between the House and Senate versions. The House bill doesn’t include a ban on culture industry spending. Coburn’s anti-arts-jobs amendment could be stripped out then.

Coburn’s earlier effort to kill construction funding for the Olympic Sculpture Park died. Once construction and museum crews finished their work, the sculpture park proved to be a triumph.

Why does Coburn persist now? Like the late Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican who relished his role as Senator No, obstruction is the name of Dr. No’s game. In December, he voted against federal loans to Detroit automakers. In January, he voted against extending SCHIP, the children’s health insurance program for low-income families. He pretty much opposes any federal spending and supports tax cuts. That trickle-down economic philosophy is being plowed under in the job-creating stimulus bill that, in some form, will likely pass this week. So, the best he can do is try to throw up a few roadblocks.

Let’s just hope that, given the size of the bill and the speed with which it needs to be negotiated, the Democratic-controlled Congress doesn’t overlook Coburn’s obnoxious amendment. You might want to remind your senators and representatives to pull it out. Contact them here.

—Christopher Knight