Tsunamis and Cowboy Poetry

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 11 2011 1:46 PM

Tsunamis and Cowboy Poetry

I've gotten a few accusations of "politicizing tragedy" since writing up this item about the cuts to NOAA and FEMA in the GOP's continuing resolution. Honestly, I hesitated to write that up because I wondered about the news value of the cuts. But the facts that Democrats had tried and failed (so far) to restore the cut funding, and that NOAA employees want the money back, made it worth posting -- and Suzy Khimm has more, about the annoyance with climate change research that's behind at least some of the cuts.

But let's think on this. When do we hear about spending cuts? We read reports, generically and frequently, about "non-defense discretionary spending." We only hear about specific spending when legislators or advocates draw attention to it. The advocates can be people who want the money, or groups like Citizens Against Government Waste, who lobby for cuts and expose "pork."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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Ah, pork! That, in the era of the Tea Party, is usually the first thing we hear about when we hear about discretionary spending. Here's an example from earlier in the week. On Tuesday, making a floor speech against the CR, Sen. Harry Reid warned about the impact of eliminating the National Endowment of the Humanities.

These programs create jobs. The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.

The problem: "cowboy poets" sound silly. (Unless you've seen Mulholland Drive , in which case they're fairly terrifying.) Politico's headline for this was "Reid: Save federal funding for the cowboy poets!" This news item got around 6,000 "likes" on Facebook. Among the people making fun of the quote: Sen. Jim DeMint in a Senate floor speech, Sarah Palin on Twitter , Rep. Candice Miller while quoting an anti-tax poet , and Mark Levin on his radio show . Levin wondered if Reid was "suffering from dementia."

Is there nothing that can be cut in the federal budget? I ask you to listen to this.

Levin makes the point that art, and maybe the festival Reid loves so much, will survive without this funding. He's right. But the overarching argument is that cowboy poetry sounds stupid . (Levin wonders if there's a "Brokeback Mountain" in Nevada.) Because it sounds stupid, this $61 million of funding for the NEH is used as an example of how wasteful the entire discretionary budget could be.

Until today, "cowboy poetry" was famous. Who could tell you that the CR also cut $434 million from NOAA?

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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