Kennedy Center Bailout: Needed Aid or 'Swamp' Politics?

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Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country, the namesake of Washington’s preeminent performing arts center once said. Half a century after its dedication, the professional staff of the Kennedy Center seem to have it the other way around. They recently sought and received $25 million from Congress.

But besides the custodial staff deep-cleaning the red carpet and polishing the marble columns, the so-called super bunker on the east bank of the Potomac is unoccupied. As “social distancing” becomes the law of the land and the federal government races to build emergency hospitals around the country, all of the more than 6,000 seats in the arts complex remain empty.

It is a national landmark now shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, with accompanying job and revenue losses. Should the $25 million have been spent on ventilators or masks or other much-needed medical supplies? RealClearPolitics put that question this week to President Trump, the populist scourge of the Washington “swamp.” He didn’t bite. The president said he didn’t mind that the Kennedy Center got a bailout. “They do a beautiful job,” he said, adding that the facility has been “essentially closed” and admitting that he would “love to see ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

The earmark was not his idea, he said, despite the fact that he signed the $2.2 trillion relief package it was part of into law. And he knew it might not be a great look. “I said, ‘That’s a lousy sound bite. That’s not a good sound bite.’ But that’s the way life works.”  And the way the particular negotiations worked, according to Trump, was that Democrats made a request and he had “to give them something. It’s something that they wanted. It works that way.”

What followed, White House aides say, the president did not expect. As RCP first reported, the Kennedy Center received $25 million in relief and then furloughed 60% of its full-time staff through the start of May. The action was regrettable but necessary, Kennedy Center  officials insisted in a statement. The government money would be used to save some jobs and “ensure jobs for our furloughed staff to come back to once the pandemic subsides and we are able to reopen for business.” They project $20 million in losses.

For context, its total operating revenue in 2018 was $171 million, $40 million of which comes from a federal appropriation. For more context on why the center has fallen on hard times, look to the complex’s sprawling expansion on the southern lawn, which opened in January. Above ground there are “green” concert venues and new buildings. Below ground there are rehearsal rooms and classrooms. All state of the art, the project cost an estimated $250 million.

None of it will be utilized for some time, and certainly not by members of the National Symphony Orchestra, who received their last paycheck on Friday.

“This decision, from an organization with an endowment of nearly $100 million, is not only outrageous -- coming after the musicians had expressed their willingness to discuss ways to accommodate the Kennedy Center during this challenging time -- it is also blatantly illegal under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement,” wrote Ed Malaga, of the D.C. chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.

The unionized orchestra members will have their day in court. They are suing. Many on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, feel duped. They assumed the money would keep everyone from bassoonists to percussionists on the payroll. The story of the bailout money, and why it didn’t keep the musicians on payroll, is the introduction to a looming populist fight over how pandemic funding was spent – and, some say, wasted.

Enter Wisconsin Rep. Bryan Steil.

The Republican lawmaker left Janesville to drive to Washington the week the legislation was hurriedly passed. He arrived around midnight Thursday in order to vote for a relief bill with the Kennedy Center provision tucked deep within its 1,200 pages. “It was inappropriate how they were allowed to jump to the front of the line,” Steil told RCP, “but then it was all the more appalling to see how they treated their workers.”

He voted for the legislation on Friday, then he introduced more legislation the same day to claw back funding from the arts center. He does not know exactly how the money got appropriated in the first place. But that doesn’t mean he is surprised. “When you list the powerful names that have connections to the Kennedy Center,” Steil said, “you can see exactly how they got a sweetheart deal.”

Roll call for the Kennedy Center’s board of directors includes some of the wealthiest members of what once would have been called Washington’s “Georgetown set.” Millionaires and billionaires, who regularly rank on Forbes list of the richest Americans, sit on the board and walk the red carpet in tailored tuxedos and elegant ballgowns. Their colleagues include seven U.S. senators and another seven House members, each serving in an ex-officio capacity. Then there are the Trump cabinet members: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It is a symphony of wealth and influence and power.

The conductor, in terms of government relations, is Tracy Henke, a vice president at the arts venue. She did not return RCP’s request for comment, and neither did the Kennedy Center. But Congress has been returning her calls. Staffers in the House and Senate say that Henke blew up their inboxes with incessant emails and clogged their answering machines with nonstop voicemails.

“My apologies for a subsequent email, but I am providing specifics the Covid-19 situation is having on the Kennedy Center,” Henke wrote top appropriators from both parties in an email obtained by RCP. “On behalf of Deborah Rutter, our board, our hundreds of employees, and our millions of visitors/patrons, we need quick assistance to ensure we will be able to meet payroll and to reopen.”

The government largesse would follow and, with it, scrutiny. The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also sits on the Kennedy Center board, declined to comment other than to note that Henke was a former staffer of Sen. Roy Blunt. But the office of the Missouri Republican, who also sits on the board, insisted that it didn’t shepherd any funds across the finish line.

A Blunt aide told RCP that the money “was not a priority.” The senator, the staffer continued, was much more concerned about funding for HHS, and that the office’s understanding was “that the push for more funding came from House Democrats.”

That lawmakers would be cagey about legislative sausage-making isn’t surprising. But Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who didn’t respond to multiple RCP requests for comment, has pointed the finger at Pelosi. McCarthy, who likewise sits on the board of the center, complained that Pelosi never had a good reason for holding up the relief package other than to “add $24 million more dollars for the Kennedy Center in Washington.’

It is unclear, up to this point, who actually introduced the text into the bill that funded the arts center. The initial Senate bill included just $1 million. Informed speculation, shared with RCP, was that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell balked at the bigger dollar amount and eventually the decision got punted to the White House.

How did the bottom line balloon from $1 million to $25 million? A separate senior aide told RCP it had nothing to do with the Grand Old Party: “It is absolutely true that the Pelosi ask was for tons more Kennedy Center money.” What about the Blunt staffer making the rounds on Capitol Hill? “The doula was a hack GOP staffer,” the aide argued. “But this was a Democratic baby all along.”  

The money was negotiated in the Senate Appropriations Committee. A spokesman for the ranking Democrat told RCP: “Yes, Senator [Patrick] Leahy did support inclusion of emergency support for the Kennedy Center in the third emergency Coronavirus crisis bill. The Kennedy Center, as you know, has special standing not only as a national cultural resource but also as a national memorial to President Kennedy. The funding that was included will help support essential maintenance and operating functions, but of course it will not be enough to make up for all of the planned events in the center’s immediate future.” 

As of Friday night, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 276,965 domestic cases of coronavirus and 7,391 U.S. deaths. When the arts center will re-open is unclear.

Correction: Due to a miscommunication, an earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Sen. Richard Shelby declined to comment. The reporter regrets the error.



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