Smithsonian Salary Cap Passes Panel

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 11, 2006

A powerful congressional committee, citing the "exceptionally high" salaries of executives at the Smithsonian Institution, amended an appropriations bill yesterday to say no salary at the museum complex should be higher than the $400,000 the president of the United States is paid.

In 2005, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small received a base salary of $573,832, according to records the House Appropriations Committee released yesterday. In a boisterous meeting, the panel's Democrats and Republicans condemned the executive pay levels.

"There are 28 people at the Smithsonian that are paid more than Cabinet secretaries. There are 22 people at the Smithsonian that are paid more than the vice president [$212,000]. If you count pay and bonuses, there are six people making more than the president of the United States," said Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), the ranking minority member of the committee.

As for Small's compensation, which includes a housing allowance and bonus on top of salary, Obey said, "I would say he is not doing so badly." In 2003, Small's compensation package was $813,000, according to public records. The full package for 2005 has not been disclosed.

Committee members also renewed their complaints about a TV production contract with Showtime Networks that could limit access to the institution for rival film crews. The committee voted to take $15 million away from the museum's proposed 2007 budget because of its unhappiness with the deal. A week ago, a subcommittee cut an additional $5 million for the same reason.

"This has to be a huge wake-up call to the Smithsonian," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), referring to the budget cuts.

Others argued that the people affected would be Smithsonian employees and the public. "It is like using an ax when you need a scalpel," said Rep. James Moran (D-Va.). "The people who are going to get hurt are the visitors."

The action was the sharpest rebuke yet of Smithsonian management by the committee, which has criticized the Smithsonian for not consulting Congress about a new contract with Showtime. The agreement is designed to create television productions called Smithsonian on Demand that will be distributed on digital cable services. Congress, historians and filmmakers have objected to limitations on access to Smithsonian materials for filmmakers who are making more than "incidental" use of the institution's holdings or experts.

The Smithsonian has refused to release the contract because of a confidentiality clause, and Small said Monday that the institution has already made many details public. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) said the Smithsonian couldn't wiggle out of the fact that the agreement was secret, and that was unacceptable from an agency that receives 70 percent of its funding from taxpayers. "The Smithsonian was wrong to enter this contract," Taylor said.

Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) said the committee had further options, including calling for an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, conducting its own oversight hearing or issuing subpoenas.

"We simply cannot have such a beloved institution veer widely out of control," Dicks said.

Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), a former subcommittee chair and a member of the Smithsonian regents, defended the Smithsonian for the most part. "We ought to be giving them more money," Regula said. On the issue of the contract, Regula said, "I am not trying to say we handled it well."

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