Santorum voted to preserve NEA funding

Cited fear of ‘cultural vacuum’

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When social conservatives were fighting to stop funding the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s, Rick Santorum was in Congress voting to preserve taxpayer funding — pitting him against many of the high-profile culture warriors with whom he is now most identified.

NEA funding became a hot-button issue during the first President Bush’s term and on into the Clinton years, featuring prominently in that decade’s spending battles, as both fiscal and social conservatives argued against taxpayers subsidizing such art as the infamous “Piss Christ” photograph.

But Mr. Santorum, who served two terms in the House and another two terms in the Senate and is now running as a family values conservative for the Republican presidential nomination, voted more than a half-dozen times to protect the funding.

“This was a big controversy then on two scores,” said David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, which supported eliminating the group’s funding. “One was federal funding for the arts, which never seemed to us to be one of the core missions of the federal government, and secondly, of course, there was a big controversy during that period about federal funding of obscene art.”

He added, “I’m a little surprised that, being a big social conservative, Santorum didn’t vote against those things at that time — though I don’t know the reasoning.”

Mr. Santorum’s two campaign spokesmen did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls this week seeking comment, but during the 1997 fight in Congress the then-senator defended his stance, pointing to the “many highly acclaimed orchestras, fine arts programs and performing arts groups” in Pennsylvania that relied on the funding.

“The arts foster a strong sense of community and bring new ideas and cultures to many individuals and families all over the nation,” Mr. Santorum said in a statement reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Elimination of such programs would create a cultural vacuum that could not be easily filled.”

On the stump, Mr. Santorum has argued he’s the most conservative choice in the field, and that strategy has boosted him to wins in four of the first nine contests in the GOP’s nomination race, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has called for “deep reductions” in the NEA subsidy, while Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said he would eliminate it.

Still, new polls now show Mr. Santorum leading his rivals both nationally and in Michigan, where voters go to the polls Feb. 28.

But his support for NEA funding highlights occasional hiccups in his conservative record that have caused him headaches on the campaign trail.

In 2001, he backed President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law, dramatically expanding the federal government’s role in education. Two years later, he voted for the Medicare Part D prescription-drug program, which added a massive new entitlement program to the government and tacked the $400 billion cost onto the deficit. He also has taken fire for being an avid supporter of earmarks, arguing at the time that Congress had a right to send taxpayer money back home for favored projects.

Mr. Santorum has been open about what he calls mistakes.

“I’m a strong conservative, but I’m not perfect,” he said in a debate last month. “President Bush’s signature initiative was No Child Left Behind. I voted for it. I shouldn’t have. It was something that I said and I’ll say publicly that we should repeal. In fact, we should repeal all of the federal government’s role in primary and secondary education, and if you give me the opportunity, I’ll do that.”

Mr. Santorum had plenty of company from other Republicans in preserving NEA funding every year despite an assault by conservatives, particularly in the House. During that time he repeatedly voted against amendments to cut the funding, including every year of his House term from 1991 to 1994, and again in the Senate in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

“He obviously wasn’t the only Republican who supported this because it is still there,” said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “It is something that fiscal and social conservatives agreed on, but even after taking the majority they still kept funding it and never got rid of it.”

Mr. Schatz said that Mr. Santorum’s record in Congress earned him a strong 80 percent rating from CAGW, “which is what we consider a taxpayer hero.”

During Mr. Santorum’s 16 years in office, Congress spent some $2 billion on NEA.

Michael Franc, who served as legislative counsel for former Rep. William Dannemeyer of California, described the fight as “a very, very, high-profile chapter in the culture wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.”

Mr. Franc recalled how former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina went to the floor of the U.S. Senate, hoping to show some of the artwork that was being funded as a way of highlighting how objectionable it was — but the presiding officer ruled the material was so bad that it crossed the line into pornography and couldn’t be shown on the floor.

“Helms said, ‘Wait a minute, we are paying for this, this is a legitimate issue to come before this body, because this body approved funds that eventually went to fund this particular work and you are telling me that I can’t even show it as part of my discussion of this?’ ” Mr. Franc said. “It was that kind of weird Orwellian situation.”

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