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Bill Would Revamp Smithsonian’s Board

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced a bill on Tuesday to change the makeup of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents in an effort to fix the institution’s governance problems and help fill its insufficient coffers.

The bill would change the oversight board from a body partly made up of public officials to one composed entirely of private citizens. That would not only fill the board with members able to devote time to the institution’s many complex issues but also would help with private funding, Norton said.

“The Smithsonian’s financial situation is hopeless unless we open for the institution a new revenue source. A private board is typically the way institutions of this kind raise money,” she said. “We have half the board that cannot raise money — one because of the ethics rule and two because they need to raise money for themselves.”

The bill would require the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader to each submit 12 nominations to the president, 21 of whom the president would appoint to the board. Now, the 17-member board includes three Senators, three Representatives, the vice president and the chief justice of the United States.

Those public figures simply do not have the time to oversee the Smithsonian, Norton said, or to raise funds for the institution’s rapidly decaying buildings. They have other responsibilities.

“The most complex institution of this kind needs concentrated and intense oversight of the kind that public officials cannot give because of sworn public responsibility,” she said.

A GAO report released at the end of September found that the buildings need millions of dollars of work; some buildings were so badly in need of renovation, the report said, that works of art were in danger of water damage from leaky roofs.

Currently, the federal government provides about 70 percent of the institution’s budget. But it cannot fund it all, Norton said.

“Look around. You’re not going to get it from the Congress, which is on PAYGO,” she said, referring to tight, “pay-as-you-go” budget rules. “It is clear that only access to private funding sources leave us any hope of dealing with these infrastructure issues.”

Norton pointed to a June report from the Independent Review Committee, which was formed by the regents. It “pulled no punches,” she said, pointing to a governance structure that needed an overhaul. Governance shortcomings were further brought to light in March, when former Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small resigned amid allegations that he grossly misused public funds for his own compensation and expenses. Ever since, Congress has been holding hearings on the issue.

Norton said she looked to other similar institutions to craft the bill. The Smithsonian, she said, has been living in a structure that seems to date back to the 19th century.

“The question really is what took us so long to bring Smithsonian governance into the 21st century. We didn’t even bring it into the 20th century,” she said. “We waited until a crisis occurred.”