Sequestration, the shutdown and the Smithsonian


Washington DC-Sept 27: National Museum of Natural History. (Marge Ely)
October 4, 2013

The new fiscal year brought a special reprise to the arts and cultural world in Washington — an extended engagement of the second-biggest government production ever to affect the Smithsonian and other federal institutions. Sequestration, those across-the-board congressionally mandated spending cuts designed to reduce the federal budget deficit, is back. In some ways it’s bigger, and it’s second only to the government shutdown in its potential to arbitrarily disrupt visitor experiences and overwhelm laypeople with numbers.

The first iteration of sequester, which ran from March 1 to Sept. 30, triggered roughly $42 million in Smithsonian cuts, or about 5 percent of the approximately $815 million federal appropriation for the balance of fiscal 2013. A continuing resolution for fiscal 2014 would bring an entire year’s worth of sequester cuts, up to $65 million worth for the Smithsonian, and reach deeper into operations and possibly include furloughs, officials said.

The government shutdown and continuing uncertainty about the budget process mean: “We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. “We have all kinds of plans. We’re still trying to avoid furloughs,” which had not been seriously considered previously, “but that might happen.”

“We’re ready for whatever,” St. Thomas says.

First Movement: Sequestration 2013

Starting in March, the Smithsonian cuts came mainly through delays in repairs, maintenance and equipment purchases. A hiring freeze went into effect along with a reduction in staff travel. Construction continued on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as did renovations to the Arts and Industries Building. Initially, no furloughs were planned. The next month, because of a reduction in a security contract, the Smithsonian closed small exhibit area sections in the African Art Museum, “The Commons” on the first floor the Castle and sections of the third floor at the Hirshhorn that housed some permanent collection items.

Second Movement: Sequestration 2014

With the government shutdown, it’s impossible to say what the Smithsonian budget will be. A ballpark figure, based on last year’s cuts, is $775 million, according to St. Thomas.

A new round of sequestration, lasting the entire fiscal year, could force an additional $23 million in budget cuts.

The museum has just begun a buyout program for federal employees.

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National Women’s History Museum

— Lonnae O’Neal Parker

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