A top Republican Senator is probing grant awards by the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) that supported academic work on esoteric topics such as "What is the meaning of life?"
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, said that topic of study and others seemed inappropriate "in the current fiscal environment."
"I affirm the value of the humanities, but we all recognize that care and discipline must be exercised by any government agency that decides to favor certain projects over others," Sessions said in the letter to acting NEH chairman Carol Watson.
Sessions specifically questioned seven NEH funded research projects: "What is the meaning of life?"; "Why are we interested in the past?"; "What is the good life and how do I live it?"; "Why are bad people bad?"; "What is belief"; "What is a monster?"; and "Why do humans write?"
NEH awarded between $23,000 and $25,000 for each project.
Beyond a general concern about stewardship of taxpayer funds, Sessions said the expenditures were not consistent with the statute that created the Endowment, which requires that all funding "contribute to public support and confidence in the use of taxpayer funds."
Sessions said he believes "the public would benefit from a fulsome explanation of the entire review process which solicits education grant input, assesses and prioritizes proposed projects, reviews and recommends projects and awards, and then seeks value for monies spent."
The House Interior and Environment Appropriations bill includes a 49% cut in funding for the NEH.
That legislation, said Rep. Hal Rogers (R., Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, "seeks to protect vital programs that directly affect the safety and well-being of Americans, while dramatically scaling back lower-priority, or ‘nice-to-have’ programs."
Sessions suggested that wasteful spending at NEH could undermine its case to preserve higher funding levels as Congress tightens its belt.
He also asked Watson about a project by NEH’s Bridging Cultures Bookshelf Administration that distributed books about Islam to 900 libraries across the country.
"One would think that NEH takes a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture" by using its funding to promote other major religions, he said.
Sessions asked for a list of materials about Islam distributed under the program, as well as "an itemized list, over the last five years, of all spending related to Christianity […] or Judaism where books or forums promoting one point of view were provided to libraries, etc."