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."
Yesterday afternoon, the Smithsonian announced that Small and Sheila Burke, the Smithsonian's deputy secretary and chief operating officer, had scheduled meetings today with committee members.
The 28 jobs with compensation of more than $200,000 in 2005 are paid from the Smithsonian's trust funds. This money comes from donations and earnings from the museum's endowment, not from public funds.
Included on the list are Burke with a base salary of $370,000; the undersecretary for science, David Evans, with $300,000; and the undersecretary for art, Ned Rifkin, with $430,000. The list shows only five, not six positions with pay equal to or more than the president's, but the committee figured that Burke's bonus, which was not disclosed, would put her over the line.
Smithsonian on Demand and other for-profit divisions are part of Smithsonian Business Ventures, which operates with private money and has a separate salary structure from the rest of the museum. The list released by Congress showed Gary Beer, Business Ventures chief executive officer received $558,075, including bonuses.
"I can't go back to Idaho and justify this," said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). "I can barely justify my salary." Regula conceded that "for a farm boy from Ohio, the salaries look pretty big."
The Smithsonian has maintained that the salaries are set to attract the best people in their fields.
"Who can argue that someone should be paid more than the president of the United States? But in fact there are 40 museum directors around the world that are. It is not just the Smithsonian, but everyone who is recruiting for those positions," said Roger W. Sant, the Washington businessman who is chairman of the regents executive committee.
The salaries are reviewed by the regents compensation committee, Sant said. "We spend hours looking at the comparable salaries," he said.
In recent weeks, the committee and the Smithsonian have been exchanging letters about the Showtime deal, announced in early March. One letter, from Taylor and Dicks, asked the Smithsonian regents to discuss the contract at their meeting on Monday and make the terms public.
The regents responded in a letter late Tuesday, saying: "When a filming request involves significant, more than incidental use of Smithsonian content, the filmmaker has several options -- approach the Smithsonian on Demand joint venture to see if the venture is interested in producing the film (a very attractive option to filmmakers who do not already have financing in place); . . . discuss a co-production with the Smithsonian Institution outside the venture; or reduce the proposed use of Smithsonian resources to an incidental component of the film. Again, should the filmmaker choose not to work with the venture, the Smithsonian has the ability to produce a number of films outside the venture each year. However, as has always been the case, there is the possibility that in rare cases, use of Smithsonian resources will not be possible."
Sant said he was mystified by some of the controversy. "Obviously, we have made some people angry and we are disappointed at that. We are doing our best to find out what is making them angry," he said. "We feel we have disclosed almost all of it. All of us have read the contract. We went over the provisions that have caused concern. We all feel comfortable."
The governing board of the Smithsonian is headed by Chief Justice John Roberts. A spokeswoman for the court, Kathy Arberg, said Roberts would have no comment on the Showtime matter.
Showtime referred all questions to the Smithsonian.
The Smithsonian's appropriation and the salary cap will be reviewed by the Senate, and any dispute will be settled by a House-Senate conference committee in the fall.