A Writer’s Project for the 21st Century: A Conversation with Congressman Ted Lieu

June 29, 2022   •   By Don Franzen

EDITOR’S NOTE: California Congressman Ted Lieu has recently co-sponsored legislation drawing its inspiration from a New Deal program that supported writers during the Great Depression. Congressman Lieu took out time from his heavy schedule to discuss with this bill with LARB Legal Affairs Editor Don Franzen.

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DON FRANZEN: Congressman Lieu, thank you very much for taking time to discuss your bill HR 3054, also called the 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project Act, that you introduced along with Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez. Could you take a moment to explain briefly what the purpose of this legislative initiative is?

CONGRESSMAN LIEU: It is modeled on the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal, where we had just come out of the Great Depression amid immense suffering and a total change of life in America. We just went through something similar with this pandemic. We had basically two years of a different life, all sorts of changes in the economy, and in the social fabric of America, and I think it’s important to document what people went through and to tell the story from the inner city to suburbs to rural areas all across America.

You mentioned that there’s an antecedent for this in the Depression-era initiatives of the Roosevelt administration. How would this be similar to, and in what ways is it different, this project you’re supporting?

During the Roosevelt era, the Federal Writers’ Project at that time employed over 10,000 people between 1935 and 1943, and they did a lot of very interesting work, and stories came out of that initiative and some famous authors came out of that initiative, people such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. We had, for example, the Slave Narrative Project from that era was because of the Federal Writers’ Project. So our proposal is for a $60 million grant program to be administered by the Department of Labor, and it would go to authors and journalists and newsrooms and people who are writing stories to capture what happened during the pandemic, from all walks of life in America.

I’ve read the bill, which is succinct — it’s a pleasure actually to read a bill that doesn’t go on for 20 pages or 50 pages or 100 pages — but I noticed that the eligible entities are all either institutions, newsrooms, nonprofits, libraries, and so forth. So this isn’t targeted to individual authors, is that right?

Yes, it’d be extremely difficult for the Department of Labor to have to do specific grants for a specific person, so if I do it by institutions, it makes it somewhat easier.

What has the reception of the bill been so far? I think you introduced it about a year ago.

It’s been terrific. [David Kipen] been gathering a lot of support, and we’re pushing on two fronts. One is to get to bill passed straight up as a bill. We’re also trying to work through the appropriations process and see if we can get it inserted into the appropriations bill later this year. That could achieve a similar result.

What do you see as the prospects for its eventual passage?

It’s good. We haven’t had any formal opposition that I’m aware of, and when I explain the bill to people, they very much like it, saying, “Oh, this makes sense,” or, “Yes, we did this before, we can do it again.” And people generally have a favorable opinion of the concept and of the bill. Now what’s happening is we’re dealing with issues such as Ukraine, and you’ve got inflation, supply chain issues, so a lot of it is just trying to work through those issues and then you try to find floor time to be able to do other bills of which this would be one of them. So it’s not like people are opposed to the bill, it’s just that there are a lot of issues Congress is working on — and rightfully so right now — so that we have to make sure we get [this] done.

We’re all familiar with the culture wars over the NEA and other institutions where there was a strong right-wing opposition to any government funding the arts. Has that not been raised with respect to this bill?

It has not, and what we also saw during the pandemic is a number of local institutions shut down, and many were in red states. This is a bill that is not partisan in any way, it’s simply trying to have people tell stories and capture what happened during the pandemic, so we can capture it, because it was a life-changing experience for virtually all Americans, but also to tell future generations about what we went through and help them learn from some of the things that we didn’t do so well.

This is against the background that newsroom jobs, journalistic jobs, and writing jobs have been disappearing in the last decade, especially, so we have fewer writers documenting this very subject.

That is correct. And also, as you see more consolidation, you’re going to end up having fewer viewpoints as well. I think it’s important to try to make sure to capture all the different viewpoints and all different geographic areas across our amazing country.

And, as I understand it, this would essentially be a content-neutral grant program, in other words, it would afford a variety of viewpoints being supported?

Absolutely, it’s completely content-neutral.

Well, I do hope that this will spark a conversation and some action that will facilitate a greater documentation of this period of crisis. Thank you, congressman, for your efforts in that area.

Thank you, and I appreciate you highlighting this issue for the public as well.

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Don Franzen the legal affairs editor for Los Angeles Review of Books.