Lobbying for the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy Day 2008

The National Humanities Alliance (NHA) held its annual Humanities Advocacy Day program March 3 and 4, offering roundtable discussions and advocacy training on Monday before sending volunteer lobbyists to Capitol Hill. Meeting with congressional staff on Tuesday, the goal was to encourage senators and house representatives to support funding appropriations for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

For people like me who are new to lobbying, the idea of approaching Congress for millions of dollars can seem daunting. NHA seeks to prepare its lobbyists with group discussions on issues important to the scholarly community, such as "Humanities and the Civic World," "Digital Media," and "Research and Scholarship," generating additional talking points by highlighting common concerns among a variety of organizations. An afternoon policy brief addressed the specific legislative priorities we would be addressing Tuesday—a $177 million appropriation for NEH and $12 million for NHPRC. In the FY2009 budget that President Bush submitted to Congress, NEH is slated to receive $144.4 million, and NHPRC is zeroed out for the fourth year in a row. While the proposed NEH appropriation is slightly up from last year's, in real terms it represents a cut because of higher mandated administration expenses.

The training itself, presented by Jessica Jones Irons, Executive Director of NHA, and Ember Farber, Legislative and Advocacy Assistant with the American Association of Museums, focused largely on the importance of lobbying, the significance of timing Humanities Advocacy day early in a busy season, and what to expect during a meeting with congressional staff. There was also some discussion as to what not to do, such as making vote-related or other threats and distributing staffers' direct-dial numbers obtained from business cards. The session was useful in promoting a feeling of "ready-as-I'll-ever-be"—which is very necessary in calming nerves—but to me there remained a sense of wondering whether this would all go to plan.

Fortunately, I found myself in a group with people who had done this before. Our team, representing New York-based organizations, was led by Steven Wheatley, Vice President of the American Council of Learned Societies, and Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the Modern Language Association, with myself and University of Cologne researcher Eva Bosbach contributing to the discussions. Once the very short meetings—averaging about seven minutes—had begun, the conversations were very relaxed, on-point but not overly formal or intimidating.

Mr. Wheatley and Ms. Feal set out the importance of funding the NEH at a level higher than the president's budget requested, indicating programs that would need to be cut if the Endowment were to only receive $144.4 million and showing the congressional staffers an alarming chart representing the sharp cuts to NEH since 1994. For my part, I mentioned projects by AAUP member presses, such as the Founding Fathers papers and other documentary editions, that are funded by NHPRC and that would thus be endangered if the program were to be eliminated.

It was, of course, also fortunate that the senators and representatives whose staff we met were all sympathetic to the humanities. Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-14), Maurice Hinchey (R-22), and Jerrold Nadler (D-8) are all members of the Congressional Humanities Caucus, and Rep. Hinchey is also a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer have been similarly supportive, each signing a "Dear Colleague" letter in 2006 requesting additional funds for NEH.

Most of the staff we spoke with nevertheless expressed doubts about significant success for this year's appropriations cycle, noting President Bush's past resistance to raising funding above the levels set forth in his budget. Still, congressional support has been instrumental in keeping the NHPRC alive, as the historical publications program has received $5.5-7.5 million per year in FY06-08, years in which the president has sought to eliminate the program entirely. FY04 was the last year the NHPRC was fully funded at its authorized level of $10 million.

Whatever the level of appropriations the NEH and NHPRC ultimately receive, the lobbying efforts of universities, scholarly societies, and other cultural institutions coordinated by the National Humanities Alliance sends a clear and concerted message about the value of these programs. For congressional staff who may not be familiar with our goals, or for members of congress who do not intrinsically share our priorities, the opportunity for discussion on Humanities Advocacy Day gives us the chance to inform and, hopefully, to influence.

Online resources for humanities advocacy are available at http://www.humanitiesadvocacy.org/

More information on Humanities Advocacy Day, including photos from the 2008 event, can be found at http://www.nhalliance.org/

Shaun Manning
Communications Coordinator, AAUP