The Smithsonian Institution can start the process of building two new museums in Washington honoring the history of women and American Latinos after Congress clears a massive year-end omnibus bill.
Separate bills authorizing both museums passed the House this year as stand-alone measures but were unable to get through the Senate, so they were added to the omnibus to provide for easier passage.
The omnibus measure, released Monday and scheduled for votes in both chambers the same day, is a 5,593-page collection of bills that Congress wanted to pass before the end of the session, including fiscal 2021 appropriations, coronavirus relief and extraneous measures. The latter included the two bills authorizing the Smithsonian to build a Women’s History Museum and a National Museum of the American Latino.
The House passed the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum Act in February on a 374-37 vote and the National Museum of the American Latino Act in July via voice vote.
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee unanimously approved both measures earlier this month. On Dec. 10, the Senate sponsors tried to get the museum bills passed on the floor via unanimous consent, but Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee objected.
Lee argued that national museums should not be based on group identity.
“It’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion,” he said. “The so-called critical theory undergirding this movement does not celebrate diversity. It weaponizes diversity. It sharpens all those hyphens into many knives and daggers.”
The Friends of the American Latino Museum issued a statement at the time calling Lee’s decision to block the bill “insultingly dismissive, condescending, and misguided.”
House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, lead sponsor of the women’s history museum bill, said it’s fitting that Congress will authorize the museum in the year the United States elected its first woman vice president and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
“Building a Smithsonian Women’s History Museum, a testament to the women who helped build and shape this nation, has been years in the making and I am thrilled that we are finally set to pass this historic legislation,” the New York Democrat said in a statement. “For too long, women’s stories have been left out of the telling of our nation’s history, but with this vote, we begin to rectify that.”
Maloney introduced her bill to establish the museum after the American Museum of Women’s History Congressional Commission, created by another Maloney measure, recommended in a 2016 report that a museum be built on or near the National Mall in Washington.
The bill offers two suggestions for where the museum could be built: the South 14 Monument site bordered by 14th Street and Jefferson Drive, Wallenberg Place and Independence Avenue, and the Northwest Capitol site bordered by Third Street, Constitution Avenue, First Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Those two sites are also among the suggestions for the American Latino museum. The bill offers two other possible sites: the Arts and Industries Building at 900 Jefferson Drive and the Agriculture Department facility bordered by 12th and 14th streets, Jefferson Drive and Independence Avenue.
The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents would be required under the measure to pay 50 percent of the costs of constructing each museum from federal funds. The rest would come from non-federal sources.
Michael Teitelbaum and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.