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Maloney Hopes Reagan Commission Blueprint Could Breathe New Life Into National Women’s History Museum

Maloney, center, is leading the charge for a National Women's History Museum this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Maloney, center, is leading the charge for a National Women's History Museum this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For the fourth time in the 16 years that women on Capitol Hill have been talking about creation of a National Women’s History Museum, Congress appears poised to advance plans for its creation.  

In 2003, 2005 and 2009, similar bills passed either the House or the Senate with bipartisan support, only to be stalled in the other chamber. This time around, with a record 102 women serving in Congress, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., believes there is “more momentum” behind the museum.  

She will find out Wednesday, when the House is expected to vote on a bill establishing a privately funded commission to study the possible establishment and maintenance of a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C. Maloney is convinced the proposal will be more attractive to conservatives in both chambers, because it is similar to the plan put in place to honor one of their greatest heros — President Ronald Reagan.  The bill would establish a 8-member commission prohibited from using federal funds, similar to the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission, whose 11 members planned the 2011 celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 40th president.  

Organizers boasted that Reagan’s year-long celebration didn’t use any taxpayer funds, and Maloney said that sort of strategy has been very important to “winning support from Republican leadership.”  

House Administration Chairman Candice S. Miller, R-Mich., for instance, declared the private funding model the right approach, when her committee examined the legislation .  

The House version of the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., should easily win passage under suspension of the rules. Next up, the Senate, where Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Appropriations Chairwoman  Barbara A. Mikulski , D-Md., are carrying the mantle.  

In the 111th Congress, the push to erect a National Women’s History Museum near the National Mall was blocked by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said the bill would put taxpayers on the hook for millions.  

In contrast to that measure, which would have authorized General Services Administration to secure a parcel of land for the museum, the latest proposal only establishes the commission and obligates it to submit a report 18 months after its first meeting with a plan of action for the museum. They would examine potential locations, whether or not the museum should be part of the Smithsonian Institution, plus the cost and availability of collections.  

Private backers of the effort, led by NWHM President and CEO Joan Wages, have spent plenty of time thinking about how they would tell the comprehensive story of female contributions to the nation’s history. The group has an online presence and has already raised about $12 million for the effort.  

The nonprofit ran into allegations of mismanagement in 2012, following a Huffington Post investigation that unveiled some troubling facts about its leaders.  

Since then, the group appears to have cleaned up its act. In 2014, NWHM earned a top honors for transparency and accountability from GuideStar, a group that audits nonprofits. Maloney said Ann E.W. Stone, the Republican operative whose role with NWMH was called into question by the investigation is no longer being paid for her work.  

“Women’s roles and contributions have largely been unnoticed,” Maloney said, pointing out that of the more than 200 statues in the Capitol, only 15 women are on display and that less than 10 percent of the national historic landmarks chronicle women’s achievement. “We need a museum for half our population.”  

If the bill passes the House on Wednesday, lobbying efforts to steer it through the Senate will begin almost immediately. The group’s lobby day on Capitol Hill is scheduled for Thursday.