The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, ostensibly exists to keep businesses open and Americans working. One of the beneficiaries demanded by Democrats – especially Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – was the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which received $25 million. But despite receiving millions to stay afloat, the D.C. establishment has furloughed around 60% of its employees – and Republicans are calling for the money to be returned.
On Tuesday, March 30, a leaked internal audio of a conference call between the Opera House’s executives surfaced, suggesting that the company furlough more than 700 staff members despite the potential stimulus package benefit.
Bryan Steil (R-WI) introduced a bill the same day to rescind the grant, claiming it and others were used to meet political agendas instead of helping Americans during the pandemic crisis. “They should not have had a sweetheart deal to allow them to get $25 million and jump the line in front of everybody else,” he said. “That was wrong.”
The Center’s president, Deborah Rutter, is reportedly heard on the audio explaining the need to lay off staff. “Many of you have probably heard the Kennedy Center is in the stimulus bill for $25 million,” she said. “That now still has to go to the House for approval. We have every confidence that it will but until it’s done, it’s not done.”
“We are now the target for a lot of unhappy people who believe that we are taking the money away from sick people to do business,” Rutter added. All performances are canceled at least through May 10 and a press release on the Center’s website says the majority of their funding comes from ticket purchases and donations.
The CAREs Act has conditions for other company recipients such as the airlines, which are not allowed to furlough any employees until at least September, but no such restrictions were placed on the Kennedy Center.
Steil argued that funding the performing arts center was a political move that is taking money away from those who had greater need:
“I talked to people at home here in Janesville, I talked to a doctor who couldn’t get a medical mask, who couldn’t get PPE, then at the same time we see a sweetheart deal for a well-connected theater in Washington, DC. When you see huge pieces of legislation and large amounts of spending move quickly, there’s always a risk that people will try to utilize that to obtain benefits for their pet projects. We saw that with the Kennedy Center.”
Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) took aim at Pelosi for her part in pushing a grant for the theatre, saying, “Speaker Pelosi and her allies demanded the CARES Act include $25 million for the Kennedy Center, yet just hours after President Trump signed the legislation, the Kennedy Center’s leadership shamefully stopped paying their National Symphony Orchestra musicians.”
Then, while talking to Sean Hannity of Fox News, the Republican congressman commented on how Pelosi claimed President Donald Trump had been idling while people were dying:
“Nancy Pelosi literally held the [CARES Act] up for days to get her pet projects, including the money for the Kennedy Center. Interesting she’d use the choice of words ‘fiddlers,’ because it was the fiddlers, the violin players, all the musicians at the Kennedy Center, that got laid off right as the bill got signed.”
The president of the Local 161-710 of the American Federation of Musicians, Ed Malaga, suggested the layoffs were not even legal and claimed he had already filed a grievance:
“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. That agreement specifically requires that the center provide six weeks’ notice before it can stop paying musicians for economic reasons.”
In addition to the stimulus funding and the company’s $10 million line of credit, the Kennedy Center press release pointed out that “we must furlough approximately 60% of the Kennedy Center’s full-time administrative staff beginning April through at least May 10, 2020. The measures are apart from the 725 hourly and part-time employees already impacted.” The remaining staff include finance, marketing, and box office employees.
The report indicates $12,750,000 will be used for employee compensation with another $7,500,000 towards employee benefits. Artist fees and contracts will be allocated $1,750,000 and $250,000 each for IT to improve telework abilities and towards deep cleaning of the facility. Rent will take up $1M while information technology and other administrative expenses will each receive $750,000.
“After exhaustive review and scrutiny of all options, the Kennedy Center’s leadership and board believe the plan outlined above is the only way forward,” the report states.
The explanations of how the money will be spent still does not sit well with members of the GOP. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) sent a letter to the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russ Vought, asking to freeze the money for the center, using section 1012 of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act as an avenue. But the Center is not the only “wasteful” spending he wants cut; the senator also included several other examples:
- $75 million for National Endowment for the Arts.
- $75 million for National Endowment for Humanities.
- $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting .
- $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
- $88 million to the Peace Corps for “evacuating volunteers and U.S. direct hires from overseas.” “According to reports, the Peace Corps fired all of their 7,300 volunteers working in 61 countries on March 15. “
- $30.8 billion to the Department of Education for an “Education Stabilization Fund.”
Republicans rush to correct what they see as frivolous spending from the current CARES Act even while Democrats are trying to set up a new and fourth stimulus package.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.
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