Guest Blog: "Super Committee" Member Congressman Becerra and the Arts

Ben Donenberg



Ben Donenberg, Founder and Executive Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, attended an informal event with Congressman Xavier Becerra, who sits on the influential "Super Committee," the Joint Selection Committee on Deficit Reduction. Donenberg took the opportunity to ask about Becerra's commitment to arts and culture. 




Having seen slight and steady increases in the NEA’s budget under the previous administration, I’ve become increasingly concerned and confused about the direction of the NEA’s budget for the last couple of years.  It seems as though the effectiveness of the advocacy for the NEA has waned. It’s easy to blame it on a conservative congress, but the confounding truth is that when this current administration took office it controlled both the legislative and executive branches and the administration has consistently proposed decreases in the NEA’s budget.  I just don’t understand it. 

This year the NEA’s budget was more than $160 million.  Why the administration proposed a decrease to $146 million is a question I cannot fathom.  Then, in the hands of a conservative congress, two motions were introduced, one to eliminate the NEA altogether and one to defund the agency, without eliminating it.  Both were defeated by uncomfortable margin composed of a coalition of every Democrat (yet not enough votes) and a core of moderates from the Republican party.  And in point of fact, it was a Congressman from Idaho named Mike Simpson that rallied moderate Repubicans to join Democrats.  Phew!!

So, when Congressman Xavier Becerra, with an exemplary voting record that consistently champions the NEA, my congressman, an upstanding person and elected official who I sincerely like and who always votes what is in my heart, was appointed to the Super Committee, I breathed a sigh of relief. He will be one of twelve “electeds” who jointly will determine the direction of our national fiscal policies and budgets for the next ten years.

So, I felt a responsibility to go to his community meeting and thank him for his steadfast support of the NEA and to implore him to be the “arts champion” on the “Super Committee.” 

While he is predisposed to go the meetings of the Super Committee with an open mind, he stands proudly on his nineteen year voting record, which has always supported the National Endowment. In response to my request that he consider himself the “arts champion,” he spoke at some length about his personal journey as a young person growing up in LA and playing a trumpet that he had to borrow from his school, because his parents could not afford to buy him one.  He described the deep and significant feelings of self-esteem that came when he found a creative avenue of self-expression through his trumpet and music.  He made moving and important points that should be heard by all artists and arts advocates and patrons.  He personally values the arts because of what the arts did for him in his formative years and he understands what the arts can do for young people as their identities are forming, as they are developing social skills, as they begin to see and form judgments about the people and places around them, as they choose to engage or disengage from educational pursuits, and as they begin making choices to associate with a wide range of possible peer groups. 

Congressman Becerra communicated clearly that he understands why the arts have been important to him and by extension to the youth in his district and the nation.  Even though the time he scheduled for the Town Hall was running out, he took a good deal of time to address the issues I raised and sincerely conveyed a sense that if the topic hits the radar of the Super Committee, we could count on him to stay true to his record and the convictions he has expressed through his votes throughout his distinguished nineteen year career.  I left with a sense of hope and I am grateful that he took the time he did to share his reflections on the importance of his arts experiences as a young man growing up in our community.



Ben Donenberg is the Founder and Executive Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA). Mr. Donenberg directs and produces professional theater and teaches acting in Los Angeles.  He has performed as an actor on- and off-Broadway, in Central Park at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte Theater and on television and in film. Donenberg was appointed by the President and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to a six year term on the National Council on the Arts, which oversees the grant and policy making of the National Endowment of the Arts.