House Panel Punishes Smithsonian for Showtime Deal

A House panel recommends a $20 million cut in the Smithsonian Institute's budget, following a dispute over a contract between the Smithsonian and the cable network Showtime. A separate amendment would have a dramatic impact on Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small's salary. Lynn Neary reports.

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Now for a Washington, D.C. story. The characters: a powerful Congressional committee versus the Smithsonian, one of the most important cultural institutions in the country. The situation: film makers, historians and researchers all say the Smithsonian's new contract with the Showtime Cable Network restricts access to the Smithsonian collection. The response: leaders of an appropriations subcommittee are asking the Smithsonian Board of Regents to review the contract and report back. The result: the House Appropriations Committee is not happy. NPR's Lynn Neary picks up the story from there.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

In Washington if you can't get someone's attention privately, you can always embarrass them publicly. And that's exactly what the House Appropriations Committee did. After the Smithsonian Board of Regents reaffirmed its commitment to the Showtime contract without disclosing any details, the Appropriations Committee fired back. Angered by what they view as an arrogant snub of a Congressional request, the committee approved a $20 million cutback in the Smithsonian budget and passed an amendment stating that no one at the Smithsonian should earn more than the President. Then the committee released the salaries of the Smithsonian's top earners. Turns out Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, with an $800,000 compensation package, does make more than the President, who's salary is $400,000. And if you include bonuses, another five also make the cut.

Republican Congressman Zach Wamp of Tennessee says that's just not right.

Representative ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): We don't think the committee, that the person who runs the Smithsonian should be paid more than the President of the United States. And I'd say the average U.S. taxpayer would agree with us.

NEARY: The committee is also wagering that the average U.S. taxpayer might not be too happy to hear that 28 people at the Smithsonian are paid more than cabinet secretaries, and 22 make more than the Vice President. Try as they might to explain the need for competitive salaries to attract the best, the Smithsonian knows it's got a public relations nightmare on its hands.

Ms. SHEILA BURKE (Smithsonian Deputy Secretary): Well, we certain hear Congress very loud and clear, and I don't think there's any mistaking the message.

NEARY: Sheila Burke is the deputy secretary of the Smithsonian. Almost from the start of the controversy over the contract with Showtime, which would create a new on demand cable channel for Smithsonian programs, Smithsonian officials have seemed mystified by all the fuss. The Smithsonian has repeatedly said the contract will not restrict access to the archives and will affect only a small minority of filmmakers. Smithsonian officials have refused to disclose the terms of the contract because of a privacy agreement with Showtime. Now, Burke says, Smithsonian officials, including Secretary Lawrence Small, are eager to talk to committee members about the deal.

Ms. BURKE: We are anxious to work with the Congress to address the concerns that they have, that they've voice with us, and are anxious to sit down with the committees to do just that.

NEARY: Will you share the contract with Showtime with members of Congress?

BURKE: Yes.

NEARY: And how will you go about doing that?

BURKE: Well, we're going to be working with the committees. Obviously we're going to talk with them, hopefully soon. We're anxious to meet with the chairman and talk with him about exactly how we might go about doing that. But that's certainly our intention.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Ohio): That a few selected members might be allowed the privilege of reviewing the contract is a joke. Who does this guy think he is? The head of the CIA?

NEARY: That would be Democratic Congressman David Obey, and he's not exactly placated by the Smithsonian's belated offer to share the contract with a select few.

Rep. OBEY: I mean the way this town works is whenever people get into trouble like this, they like to have some nice cozy insiders meeting to smooth over ruffled feathers. That's not what I'm interested in. I think the committee needs to proceed with a full blown public open investigation of what the Smithsonian is doing on this, what the contract is. That's the way that you ought to proceed with an institution that's suppose to be public.

NEARY: Carl Malamud(ph), who helped organized the petition against the Showtime deal, says those who signed on are not waiting to see what happens next.

Mr. CARL MALAMUD: Everybody's a little bit amazed because, you know, the House Appropriations Committee has really come in swinging heavy. It's pretty obvious that the Smithsonian staff didn't conduct their congressional relations in the best of fashions, so most people are just sitting back and reading the newspaper trying to understand what's going on.

NEARY: Smithsonian officials say they hope to make the trip to Capitol Hill next week. If they want to, they could easily walk. It's only blocks away from their offices. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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