OK, gang. Get out your pens and pencils. Here’s another pop quiz. In 500 words or less, should the federal government fund an organization in Nevada that among other things holds an annual gathering to celebrate cowboy poetry?
And remember that your answer should be in the context of the slicing and dicing going on Inside the Beltway now to eliminate some $38 billion in federal spending this year — with more cuts expected in 2012 and beyond.
Here’s the story about the cowboy poets — from the NYT, “For Cowboy Poets, Unwelcome Spotlight in Battle Over Spending“:
ELKO, Nev. — This isolated town in the northeast Nevada mountains is known for gold mines, ranches, casinos, bordellos and J. M. Capriola, a destination store with two floors of saddles, boots, spurs and chaps. It is also the birthplace of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a celebration of range song and poetry that draws thousands of cowboys and their fans every January and receives some money from the federal government.
That once-obscure gathering became a target in the budget battle a world away in Washington last week, employed by conservatives as a symbol of fiscal waste. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a Democrat and the majority leader, invoked the event in arguing against Republican cuts in arts financing in the budget debate, setting off a conflagration of conservative scorn.
It put cowboy poetry and Elko, a heavily Republican town with a population of 17,000 about 230 miles east of Reno, very much on the ideological map, like it or not.
By every account, Mr. Reid is an admirer of what takes place here. He grew up in small-town Nevada, is a fan of cowboy culture and has boasted in news releases of getting money for the Western Folklife Center, which sponsors the event. His mention of the gathering, as an example of what he views as valuable projects financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, appears to be an innocent — if unfortunate — political misstep by a leader who is known for occasional political missteps.
“He was trying to defend the National Endowment for the Humanities and the N.E.A., and he thought, this is something that he was familiar with and he’s always liked, and he was holding this up as an example,” said Charlie Seemann, the executive director of the Western Folklife Center, a converted 98-year-old hotel on Railroad Street. “And, whoops! In this political climate it was too good a target: ‘Cowboy poetry, say what? We’re paying for that?’ ”
Mr. Reid, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
In fact, the amount of taxpayer money going to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which has met since 1985, is someplace between small and minuscule.
In most years, the government provided about $45,000 to the Western Folklife Center; the conference costs about $650,000 to $700,000, with two-thirds of the money coming from ticket sales. The N.E.A. provided seed money in the early 1980s that allowed researchers to gather oral histories from aging practitioners of what was than seen as a dying art, and to finance what turned out to be the first cowboy poetry gathering.
Yet no matter. The Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been mocked by Sarah Palin on Twitter, most recently on Friday, and on Rush Limbaugh’s show.
The gathering and Mr. Reid have been denounced by prominent Republicans in Congress — Representative Mike Pence of Indiana drew loud cheers as he attacked Mr. Reid’s position at a rally outside the Capitol last week — and by a host of Tea Party supporters on full battle alert in the budget fight in Washington.
“Given where we are with our financial situation — and some people would argue regardless of that — this is not something that the federal government should be doing,” said Thomas A. Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “If people want to support a certain amount of activity in the arts or humanities, they should be paying for it. And the fact that Senator Reid for some reason picked this as an example of how extreme the Republican budget was — he might have picked something else.”
So where do you find yourself on the issue of cowboy poets versus DC budget cutters?
And remember. Waiting in the 2012 budget-cutting on deck circle are some heavy hitters: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. And some smaller but equally contentious ones: Head Start, Planned Parenthood, public broadcasting among them.
Oh mama. Don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys — or budget cutters.