September 17 2019

A Moment to Take Stock (and Keep Advocating)

by Beatrice Gurwitz, National Humanities Alliance

A group of five humanities advocates talk together outside an office door at the Capitol

For three years in a row, the Trump administration has called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and other humanities funding streams. In both 2017 and 2018, thanks to robust advocacy from the humanities community, the Republican-controlled Congress rejected the administration’s efforts and passed increases for the NEH and several other humanities programs. This year, we are seeing support on Capitol Hill for even greater increases for the NEH and other humanities programs. The possibility of these increases is partly a result of the Democratic takeover of the House, but that isn’t the whole story—a Democratic majority has not always meant proposed increases for the humanities. Support for the NEH has grown on both sides of the aisle, largely as a result of our collective efforts to showcase just how valuable the humanities are to communities around the country. 

In March, Humanities Advocacy Day participants urged Members of Congress to sign on to letters requesting increased funding for humanities programs, resulting in significant bipartisan support. In the House, a record-breaking 175 representatives, including 11 Republicans, endorsed a $12.5 million increase for the NEH, significantly higher than the incremental increases of $2 or $3 million over the past four years. A letter in the Senate, asking for the same increase, also received a record-breaking 44 signers (all Democrats). A record-breaking 106 Members of Congress, including 7 Republicans, signed another letter requesting a $44 million increase for the Department of Education’s international education programs (Title VI and Fulbright-Hays). This was a particularly ambitious request for programs that have not received increases for years.

More recently, the House passed funding bills that included significant increases for our priorities. In addition to passing the $12.5 million increase for the NEH and a nearly $17 million increase for the Department of Education’s international education programs, the House has passed increases for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Smithsonian, the National Park Service’s historic preservation programs, and the National Historical Publications and Records Administration, the grant-giving arm of the National Archives. 

The Senate has yet to release its appropriations bills. While we know there is bipartisan support for humanities programs there as well, we are less likely to see increases of the same magnitude in the Senate’s bills. The House, Senate, and White House recently reached a deal to raise the budget caps for FY 2020, but the increase in the deal is somewhat smaller than increase the House appropriations committee assumed when drafting its bills. Senate bills will conform to these new caps, and, in the end, the House might adjust the amount for humanities programs down to help it conform with the new caps. 

While much remains to be seen, this is a moment to recognize the success of the humanities community’s efforts. In recent years, advocates have sent hundreds of thousands of messages to Members of Congress on behalf of the NEH, IMLS, NHPRC, and Title VI and Fulbright-Hays. We have also deepened research into the impact of federal funding and supported grantees in communicating their impact to local and national policymakers. We have organized in-district meetings that bring Members of Congress together with grantees from their districts so that they can hear first hand about the impact of the humanities in their communities. (Interested in working with us on one of these meetings? Let us know). And we have hosted briefings for Members of Congress and their staff that bring grantees to Capitol Hill to showcase their work. In June, for example, we were joined by the hosts of the BackStory podcast, who held a live show in the Russell Senate Office Building on “The Divided States of America,” which offered staffers a look at the importance of humanities research to understanding our contemporary moment. 

This is also a prime moment to think about ways in which you can engage Members of Congress when they are home for August recess. Our district advocacy guide offers tips on scheduling a meeting with Members of Congress and for inviting them to events in the district. Offering a Member of Congress or their district staffer a behind the scenes tour of a special collection, a new exhibition on campus, or inviting them to visit an NEH-funded summer program are just a few examples of the efforts that have been successful in engaging Members of Congress across the country. Campus government relations officers are great partners for this kind of outreach, and we are always happy to help and brainstorm as well. 

The past few years have been a testament to the power of relationship building. And now is a great time to keep building them.