Despite the White House’s call Wednesday for a yearlong “cooling off” period in the battle over obscenity and the National Endowment for the Arts, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Lomita) defiantly asserted that he will not suspend his fight to impose decency standards on the agency.
Speaking on the House floor Wednesday, Rohrabacher, who represents northwestern Orange County, told his colleagues, “I can assure all of those concerned . . . (that) there will be a vote on standards, as to whether or not federal dollars should be channeled to obscene or indecent art.”
Rohrabacher, who in the last year has helped lead the attack on the beleaguered agency, added, “The American people will be watching that vote.”
Congress had been expected in the weeks ahead to consider legislation that would prolong the life of the NEA for another five years. However, the White House this week indicated that it would seek only a one-year extension.
The move was intended to avoid a full-scale battle this year between those who wish to impose decency standards on artwork that is funded by the agency and those who believe such efforts represent a heavy-handed attempt at government censorship of art.
A one-year extension would continue the work of the agency, which annually spends more than $170 million, and give partisans on both sides a chance to work out their differences, White House officials have said.
Rohrabacher, however, signaled Wednesday that he would have no part of any compromise.
“There will be a vote on this issue (of decency standards) whether it is a one-year authorization or a five-year authorization,” the first-term congressman said during his brief address to the House.
In an interview later, Rohrabacher said he didn’t think his stand would cause any problems with the White House. “I think that President Bush is trying to be as loyal as he can to his own appointee (NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer), even though his appointee is basically blowing it.”
The controversy over the NEA began last June, when it was disclosed that the 25-year-old agency had helped support separate exhibitions that included homoerotic photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe and a photograph by Andres Serrano depicting a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine.
Conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) last summer persuaded the Senate to pass an amendment to an NEA appropriations bill that would have barred the agency from supporting obscene or indecent artwork, or artwork that casts slurs on any race, religion or ethnic group. Rohrabacher unsuccessfully led the fight for the so-called “Helms amendment” in the House.
Instead, Congress approved language that banned NEA support only for “obscene” artwork, but the language did not specify who determines whether art is obscene. In addition, Congress created a commission to study the process through which the NEA makes grants.
Rohrabacher earlier this year said he would move to attach language establishing content standards for NEA-supported artwork to the NEA authorization bill to be considered this spring. In addition, he said he would later act to eliminate all funding for the NEA when a separate appropriations bill is considered later this summer.
At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Wednesday: “Our position has been that we’re willing to accept this one-year (reauthorization), while they look at this. . . . If members come up with amendments, why, that’s their business. . . . Our general position going in is simply a one-year extension.”
A conservative Republican whose background is firmly rooted in libertarian philosophy, Rohrabacher has said that government has no legitimate interest in financing private artwork. At the same time, he has said the government should not intrude into what an artist does “on his time, with his own dime.”
Rohrabacher argues that the issue is not censorship, but taxpayer sponsorship of artwork that would offend most of the taxpayers who are helping to pay for it. Setting standards for taxpayer-supported art is an appropriate fallback position if the government is going to pay to support artists, he has said.
A recent Times Orange County Poll found that 57% of a random sample of 600 registered voters in Orange County disapprove of the government setting standards based on obscenity or controversy for government-supported artwork.
Rohrabacher on Wednesday said he simply does not believe that the poll is accurate.
“Suggesting that the people of Orange County don’t care if their money is flowing to indecent or sacrilegious art has got to be the most inaccurate presentation of their views I’ve ever heard. Why do they elect people like me?” Rohrabacher said.
The Times Orange County poll, conducted by Mark Baldassare & aAssociates of Irvine, did not ask voters whether they generally favor or disapprove of the concept of government support for the arts, regardless of whether the government imposes standards on the art’s content.
Earlier, Rohrabacher told his colleagues in the House, “The American people don’t want their tax dollars going to pornographic or sacrilegious art in any form.
“Because their position is out of sync with the morals and values of the American people, the opponents of standards have been going through enough acrobatics to qualify for a job with Ringling Bros.”