For a tale that sums up both the Romney presidential campaign and the battle over the federal debt and deficit, look no further than the battle over funding the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The endowment, despite its name, is not an endowment but a federal agency, funded annually by Congress, that gives awards and grants to historians, libraries, museums, and filmmakers.
In a recent interview with Fortune, Governor Romney named the National Endowment for the Humanities on a list of "programs I would eliminate."
I'm all for cutting government spending, but something about Romney's attack on the NEH is dismaying.
For one thing, it shows an instinct for to go for the capillary rather than the jugular. The appropriation for the National Endowment for the Humanities in the 2012 federal budget is $146,000,000. The overall federal budget is about $3,795,500,000,000. The spending on the humanities is not one percent of the federal budget. It's not a tenth of a percent of the federal budget. It's not a hundredth of a percent of the federal budget. It's all of four one-thousandths of a percent of the federal budget. It's a rounding error. As an NEH fact sheet points out, on a per capita basis, its agency costs "barely more per capita than the cost of a postage stamp."
Okay, one might say, it's a symbolic point — you've got to start cutting somewhere, so why not start with welfare for historians? The history professors, museum trustees, and historical archivists don't have as powerful a lobby as the ethanol producers or the senior citizens or the pharmaceutical companies, so in this case there might be some chance for actual success in achieving the budget cuts.
Why not start cutting here? Well, to start with, at least for those of us on the center-right of the political spectrum, the NEH folks are our guys. The list of NEH Jefferson Lecturers looks like the bylines in Commentary or on the Wall Street Journal editorial page: Leon Kass, Donald Kagan, Bernard Lewis, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Robert Conquest. The winners of the National Humanities Medal, another NEH program, include Richard Brookhiser, Myron Magnet, Victor Davis Hanson, Richard Pipes, Ruth Wisse, James Buchanan, Fouad Ajami, Lewis Lehrman, Alan Kors, Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Sowell, and Midge Decter. These are Romney's natural allies, not his enemies.
In addition, if Romney has a shot of getting elected at all this November, it will be in part because of the political energy, and concern about the federal deficit and debt, related to the Tea Party movement. That movement, in turn, drew much inspiration from the American founding fathers. Tea Party rallies often feature revolutionary-era flags and colonial-style fifes and drums, and the Boston Tea Party, after all, was a signal event in the American Revolution.
With the possible exception of the National Park Service, no federal agency has done more to raise consciousness of the American Revolution than the National Endowment for the Humanities. Historians of the American Revolution Gordon Wood, Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn, David McCullough, and the aforementioned Brookhiser have all either won the National Humanities Medal or delivered the Jefferson Lecture. NEH grants have financed weeklong workshops run by the Massachusetts Historical Society that teach schoolteachers about the battles of Lexington and Concord. NEH grants help fund Colonial Williamsburg, financed a PBS program on Alexander Hamilton, and underwrite the projects to publish the papers of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in comprehensive and careful modern scholarly editions.
Again, one might object that teaching American history is the job of local schools, not the federal government. But if one believes that, then the federal Department of Education, with its $98 billion budget, is a far juicier target than the National Endowment for the Humanities, with its budget of a relatively paltry $146 million.
One might also argue that the for-profit companies CBS (whose Simon & Schuster published McCullough's books John Adams and 1776 as well as Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin), Time Warner (whose HBO aired a John Adams miniseries), and News Corp. (whose Fox News aired Glenn Beck's programs on Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and George Washington) have done more for the founders via free enterprise than the National Endowment for the Humanities has done through government expenditures. Yet McCullough himself has testified to the help that the Adams Papers project at the Massachusetts Historical Society provided to his work.
It's not that I don't understand the arguments against funding the NEH. America somehow managed to have plenty of achievements in literature, history, and philosophy before the endowment was created in 1965 during a period of vast expansion of the federal government. The strongest NEH grantees, both institutions and individuals, would probably find a way to survive without federal funding, albeit with some difficulty and with reduced programs or productivity. As Romney's campaign puts it, "the federal government should stop doing things the American people can't afford." Threatening to eliminate a program is a long way from actually doing so; maybe to have any hope of a budget reduction in Washington, a politician has to start by threatening to eliminate a program entirely as an opening negotiating gambit and then compromise upward from there.
Federal spending, it turns out, is hard to cut. When a politician targets some program, he may find out that it is actually worthwhile, or at least that it is genuinely important to some real and not-so-remote constituency. If Mr. Romney makes it to the White House, I would tell him, if I got the chance, that there are about a thousand other federal programs to cut before slashing the National Endowment for the Humanities. But each of those thousand programs has its own justification, too.