Storm clouds are on the horizon for the National Endowment for the Arts as the agency begins its reauthorization hearings next month without a chairman.

The federal agency recently submitted a two-year reauthorization plan to Congress that is parallel in scope to the language written into the agency’s 1990 reauthorization bylaws, sources said.

Ironically, that language still includes the decency clause that a U.S. District Court judge had struck down as unconstitutional in 1992.

The clause states that grants will be assessed on their “general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public.”

That language is still in the agency’s pact because the Justice Dept. moved last month to appeal the judge’s ruling (Daily Variety, April 6, 1993). The matter has yet to be decided by the Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the NEA’s current acting senior deputy chairman, Ana Steele, is scheduled to testify June 10 before the Labor Management Relations committee, a subcommittee of the Education and Labor Committee.

While sources said that the hope is for the NEA to quietly move through this year’s reauthorization process, the vollying of partisan politics since Bill Clinton’s election could jeopardize that goal.

“The climate in Washington right now is very political and very partisan,” admitted one Capitol Hill insider. “It might be naive for the NEA to think they can slip this reauthorization by.”

The most problematic issue continues to be the fact that Clinton has yet to take a strong stance on the agency’s future. He has yet to name a chair or even address the agency in any decisive fashion.

In fact, the Justice Dept.’s decision to pursue the appeal on the decency ruling caught many art supporters by surprise, since it seemed to contradict Clinton’s pre-election stance on the arts.

Last month former NEA chair John Frohnmayer publicly warned that unless Clinton takes quick action, he could be sending an already weakened agency into yet another political reauthorization firestorm (Daily Variety, April 6).

That prediction could well come true in the next several weeks. For instance, one of the agency’s most vociferous opponents, Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Texas), sits on the Labor Management Relations subcommittee, the group that will have the first look in this reauthorization procedure.

As for who the new NEA chair will be, the rumor mill continues to most strongly circulate around actress Jane Alexander.

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