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Gringrich Suggests Rich, Not Congress, Fund Arts

By Jacqueline Trescott
The Washington Post

The wealthy celebrities and entertainment company executives who lobby Congress for government arts funding should instead use their own money to set up a private endowment, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Thursday.

"If the people who come to lobby us (for arts funding) who are famous and rich would simply dedicate 1 percent of their gross income to an American Endowment for the Arts,' they would fund a bigger system than the National Endowment for the Arts," Gingrich said in a news conference at the Capitol.

He joined a feisty contingent of conservatives from both the House and the

Senate who renewed their calls to eliminate the NEA when the fiscal spending year ends at the end of September. They were immediately rebuked in the same location by an equally fired-up, bipartisan group from the House.

Gingrich and others insisted that the industry has the money to spend. Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., a key House leader, read from the Forbes list of top moneymakers. "If Disney would simply donate as much to the endowment as Disney pays one executive who is leaving the company, you could finance the whole thing," said Gingrich of his idea, which he described as a tax-deductible private trust.

Gingrich's strongly worded stance indicated that the NEA's strategy of sending pro-arts celebrities to Capitol Hill might cast a temporary glow of photo opportunity but doesn't change the position of some die-hard opponents.

Also, the conservatives who wholeheartedly backed the speaker's agenda two years ago have pledged to make the NEA a prime issue again this year and were eager to have him out front as a clear opponent of the agency.

In recent weeks, it appeared that the conservatives' battle plan to close the NEA, based on a 1995 agreement to continue funding at $99.5 million for two years and then eliminate it, was being derailed by moderate Republicans who were speaking up for the agency.

Although most of the conservative speakers acknowledged the importance of the arts in society, they had a long list of objections to federal arts support. "I consider the arts to be a precious part of American culture," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, "but the National Endowment for the Arts gives you more reasons to quit than Willie Nelson."

Armey started his list with the fact that the framers of the Constitution did not include the arts, maintaining that the arts developed just fine before the advent of the NEA in 1965.

Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., said government approval for arts projects was akin to censorship. "The American people will get better art once the government gets out of the way," added Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority whip.

Gingrich again raised the issue of the geographic spread of the NEA grants. "There are 140 districts with taxpayers who pay taxes to subsidize art, and that subsidy goes primarily to New York and California," he said.

The NEA released figures this week showing that New York, California and Pennsylvania received the most dollars, while Texas ranked fifth and Georgia 10th.