Blogs > Cliopatria > NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE (Vol. 12, #25; 1 JUNE 2006)

Jun 1, 2006 8:27 pm

NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE (Vol. 12, #25; 1 JUNE 2006)

6. BITS AND BYTES: NCH Member Organization Dues Reminder; “The Capitol” Focus for C-SPAN Special; NMAH Donor’s Name to Be Inscribed in Stone; Recent NSA Releases
7. ARTICLES OF INTEREST: “Two Thousand Ancient Relics Confiscated From Smugglers”

1. SMITHSONIAN OFFICIALS TESTIFY BEFORE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE Summoned by the House Administration Committee, Smithsonian Institution
(SI) Secretary Lawrence Small and members of his senior staff testified before a House oversight committee on 25 May 2006 on the controversial agreement recently entered into between the Smithsonian and CBS/Showtime Networks Inc. Among other revelations, Small stated that the Smithsonian is locked into its semi-exclusive contract for 30 years, unless (for a variety of undisclosed reasons) either party decides to cancel the agreement. Small’s testimony did little to mollify critics; in fact, his appearance raised new and more serious questions about the long-term ramifications of the deal.

Smithsonian officials provided two versions of the 170-plus page contract to Representative Vernon J. Ehlers’s (R-MI) oversight committee. According to insiders, the first version was “heavily redacted,” and only after congressional complaints did SI officials provide the committee with clear
text version. For “proprietary reasons,” neither version was made
public. Nevertheless, in his testimony and during the question and answer period that followed, Small confirmed details that many have long suspected were present in the contract – that the term of the agreement is thirty years, and that the Smithsonian has only six opportunities a year to “opt-out” of commercial productions with Showtime.

Small stated that he personally did not take part in drafting the contract – that task fell to Gary M. Beer, chief executive of Smithsonian Business Ventures. With flaying hands that nearly knocked over his microphone several times, Small passionately tried to defend the benefits that he insisted the agreement will accrue to the Smithsonian. He explained that the Smithsonian was trying to bring in extra revenue; that in spite of a $800 million endowment and some $1 billion raised since 2000, there is still a backlog of repairs that, unless funded privately, would cost Congress “billions” of dollars to finance. Repeatedly, he asserted that out of over 900 media agreements in the last five years, there have been only 17 instances of “substantial use” of Smithsonian resources. Thus, the activities of over 95 percent of potential users would not be impacted by the provisions of the contract.

Small asserted that a contracting procedure that closely mirrored federal procedures was employed by his Business Ventures division; however, his explanation of how the contract was awarded bore no resemblance to any known species of federal contract procedures. But what flabbergasted hearing attendees was Small’s matter-of-fact statement that while “Showtime...has invested millions of dollars up front” (no details were provided of what Showtime has actually invested to date) the Smithsonian is “guaranteed” only $500,000 a year from Showtime. He explained though that the SI can earn additional money (perhaps as much as $99 million or $3 million a year) if “Smithsonian on Demand” is popular and profitable with cable subscribers. The disclosure of this staggeringly low guaranteed figure ($15 million over 30 years with presumably no provision for adjustments for inflation) deeply troubled several members of the committee and took critics of the deal by surprise.

According to the Center for American Progress’s Carl Malamud, whose organization has been at the forefront of criticism of the Showtime deal, $500,000 a year plus a profit sharing provision in which the dominant party has a 90% equity stake is a “pretty cheap price to sell our archives.” Furthermore stated Malamud, in his professional opinion, a thirty-year contract “is impractical...In this Internet era, even three-year distribution contracts can be considered long.”

During the hearing Small also confirmed that the Smithsonian Regents were not (and apparently they never are) provided actual copies of proposed Showtime agreement. He explained that the Regents were provided only briefing sheets and were informed by Smithsonian officials of the complex contract provisions. By thwarting the Regents’ ability to make a detailed and critical review of the contract, Small’s statement raises questions about the quality of the Regents oversight over the management of the Smithsonian, an issue that is particularly troubling in light of the recent announcement that the SI’s Investigator General was looking into questionable executive compensation and accounting practices of the Smithsonian Business Ventures division.

During the hearing, critics of the Showtime deal from within the ranks of the House Administration Committee as well as outside witnesses made their views known. Margaret Drain, Vice-President for national programming at Boston PBS affiliate WGBH (a leading producer of PBS documentaries) stated, “the resources of the Smithsonian should not be made exclusive to
anyone.” Her view was echoed in written testimony introduced into the
hearing record on behalf of the American Historical Association (AHA). In her statement, AHA President Kerber asserted that because the Smithsonian is a tax-supported public institution, “access for everyone seeking to create and disseminate history” should not be denied. Kerber also reiterated the history and archival profession’s commitment to “open access” to the materials of history; she underscored the importance of being able “to disseminate freely the results of [their research] findings.” Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s Washington office, was even more forthright in her criticism; she called for the agreement to be annulled.

2. THE EMBATTLED SMITHSONIAN SECRETARY – SMALL LINKED TO FANNIE MAE SCANDAL Not that Lawrence Small already does not have has enough problems with Congress and critics of the Showtime agreement, but now the Smithsonian Secretary is under investigation for his role in a recently discovered accounting scandal at the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae). From 1991 until 2000 when he became Smithsonian Secretary, Small served as president, chief operating officer, and board member of that association.

Small is no newcomer to criminal investigations. After a four-year investigation conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service ending in 2004, he pleaded guilty to a technical violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for purchasing a collection of Amazonian tribal artifacts that was added to his own collection of similar cultural objects. The collection he purchased helped to bolster what appeared to critics as his rather thin credentials for serving as head of the Smithsonian complex of museums. The current charges, however, are potentially far more serious.

According to a report issued by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, Small was among a handful of senior Fannie Mae officials who set an improper “tone at the top.” These actions, the report claims, served to encourage employees to doctor earnings by $10.6 billion, thus enabling
senior officials to collect tens of millions in salary bonuses. The
report also states that over a six-year period the company engaged in “extensive financial fraud.” The investigation is now focusing on assessing the role that senior officials, including Small, played in what the regulators characterize as “ill-gotten” bonuses.

There is little doubt that Small has had a rough time of it during his six years serving at the helm of the Smithsonian. Should the Senate agree with the House and punish Small for “failing to consult adequately with Congress” in awarding the Showtime contract by reducing the Smithsonian budget by $20 million in its proposed 2007 budget, the Regents will have to consider in the near future whether Small’s effectiveness as the Smithsonian’s leader has been compromised to the extent that dismissal is warranted. His resignation, together with a promise by the Regents to tighten their administrative oversight over the SI, could serve as the catalytic event leading to a restoration of the $20 million cut and renewed Congressional confidence in the management and leadership of that embattled institution.

3. HOUSE COMMITTEE TO ANNOUNCE NARA/NHPRC BUDGET RECOMMENDATIONS NEXT TUESDAY The full House Appropriations Committee will announce and vote on its recommendations for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) budget for FY 2007 this next Tuesday, 6 June 2006.

The full committee will act on the proposal formulated by the Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, and Housing and Urban Development, The Judiciary, District of Columbia. The committee recommendations will include the long-awaited totals for what many consider “underfunded” programs advanced in the President’s FY 2007 budget proposal that are administered by NARA, including the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Hill insiders are not predicting any surprises or miracles; it is a tough fiscal environment. Committee budget allocations will make any new programs a tough sell. The general prognostication is that overall NARA will realize a budget total that will approximate what Congress allocated last year. According to informed sources, there may be some shifting of program funds and priorities in order to enable NARA to accomplish what it can with its very limited funds.

4. BILLS INTRODUCED – MEASURE INTRODUCED TO FACILITATE LANDSCAPE RESTORATION IN NATIONAL PARK UNITS Legislation (H.R. 5411) was introduced on 17 May 2006 by Representative Steve Pearce (R-NM) to establish a “demonstration program to facilitate landscape restorations within certain units of the National Park System established by law to preserve and interpret resources associated with American history.” The measure seeks to direct the Secretary of the Interior to establish the demonstration program within those units established by statute to preserve and interpret “resources associated with American military history.”

The bill envisions that each of the 24 National Battlefields and other NPS administered battlefield units would be able to keep funds provided by receipts from the sale of timber cut in such units. Timber sales would be used to fund a variety of activities including: landscape restoration within the unit, interpretive services, eradication of invasive species, and fuel load reduction within such units. No timber cutting would be permitted unless a park had an approved resource management plan that recommends “specific timber removal for purposes of cultural or historic landscape restoration or fuel load reduction.”

The legislation has been crafted with substantial input from several environmental organizations, including National Parks Conservation Association, which is supportive of the bill “as introduced.” The measure has been referred to the House Committee on Resources for consideration. The committee has requested official comment from the Interior department.

5. LAWMAKERS MOVE TO TIGHTEN CONTROL OVER THE HISTORY CURRICULUM IN FLORIDASCHOOLS Florida Governor Jeb Bush has signed into law a new comprehensive K-12th grade education bill – the Florida Education Omnibus Bill (H.B. 7087e3). Buried in the 160-page bill are new provisions designed to “meet the highest standards for professionalism and historic accuracy.” Some Florida history teachers, though, question the philosophical underpinnings of the law.

The most controversial passage states: “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” To that end teachers are charged not only to focus on the history and content of the Declaration but are also instructed to teach the “history, meaning, significance and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and the amendments thereto...” Other bill provisions place new emphasis on “flag education, including proper flag display and flag salute” and on the need to teach “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.”

Unlike U.S. Senate version of the proposed new federal “Higher Education Act” (S. 1614) that seeks to define “traditional” American history, the Florida statute does not specifically define American history at all, rather, it describes what it is to include: “the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present.” Special provisions mandate the teaching of the history of the Holocaust, the history of African Americans, and Hispanic “contributions” to the United States. The role that Native Americans played in American history escapes mention. In highly prescriptive language students are to be taught “the arguments in support of adopting our republican form of government” as embodied in the Federalist Papers. The proscriptive language causes thoughtful teachers to wonder whether they are permitted to teach the line of reasoning advanced by the anti-federalists.

While the goal of the bill’s designers is “to raise historical literacy” concerning the documents, people, and events that shaped the nation, some history educators question the emphasis on teaching only “facts.” State Representative Shelley Vana, who also serves as the West Palm Beach teachers union president wonders “whose facts would they be, Christopher Columbus’s or the Indians?”

Theron Trimble, executive director of the Florida Council for the Social Studies, also questions the bill’s provisions that declares that teachers are not to “construct” history. Trimble asserts that “American history tends to get reinterpreted and re-reviewed in cycles...It’s a natural evolution, history is as changeable as the law.” Perhaps Jennifer Morely, an American history and government teacher, best summarized the concerns of her colleagues: “If you just require students to memorize information, that’s not the best way to create active citizens...we’re just creating little robots.”

The new law takes effect 1 July. Shortly thereafter, the state department of education will begin reviewing their standards and textbooks in 2007.

6. BITS AND BYTES Item #1 – NCH Member Organization Dues Reminder: Second notices will be sent out next week to NCH member organizations that have yet to forward their 2006 member dues to the National Coalition for History. Prompt payment of dues facilitates the history coalition’s various advocacy and educational activities. To that end the NCH Policy Board wishes to recognize the generous increase in support being provided this year by the Society for Military History, that, at its last board meeting, voted to increase its annual support of the NCH from $5,000 to $7,000 a year. Thank you Society for Military History! Individual readers who wish to support the history coalition may do so by following the donation instructions in the “Who We Are” box (see below).

Item #2 – “The Capitol” Focus for C-SPAN Special: The story of the U.S. Capitol – its public and private spaces – as well as an exploration of its history and architecture will be the topic of a series of programs on C-SPAN television, radio, and online, starting 31 May. The three-night special will combine taped and live segments enabling viewers to get an insider’s view of the Capitol from 1800 to today. For additional information visit the C-SPAN special website .

Item #3 – NMAH Donor’s Name to Be Inscribed in Stone: Regular readers of the NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE may recall that some years back the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) received a $80 million donation from businessman/philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring. Behring was promised that he was to be recognized for his generous gift by adding his name to the nation’s history museum. For several years, a temporary blue banner fluttered above the doorway to of the museum and proclaimed the “new” official name of the museum: “National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center.” At long last, Behring will see the promise fulfilled. During the month of June 2006 contractors will install a new permanent stone sign with Behring’s name inscribed. The work on the signs should be completed by first week of July. According to Smithsonian officials summer visitors to the museum
should not be substantively inconvenienced by the work.

Item #4 – Recent NSA Releases: The National Security Archive has announced the release of a large collection of Henry Kissinger's Memoranda of Conversation (memcons), that thanks to the editorial skills of the Archive’s William Burr, provide a “detailed and candid record” of his diplomatic exploits and contacts with world leaders from 1969 to 1977. To access the collection go to: . Also of possible interest to readers will be the second and final installment of declassified National Security Agency records on Vietnam and the Tonkin Gulf Incident that were published earlier this week by the other NSA (National Security Agency) on their web site. To access the documents go to: .

7. ARTICLES OF INTEREST: One posting this week: In “Two Thousand Ancient Relics Confiscated From Smugglers” (Cultural Heritage News Agency; 17 May 2006) readers will learn that smugglers in Iran are selling antiquities and antiques to museums and collectors outside the country. Iran’s government has asked an international court to intervene. For the article, go to:;id=6378 .

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