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Scary stuff ...


Can Smithsonian remain free in a town where everything is for sale?

BARRIE MCKENNA

WASHINGTON -- Inside the Smithsonian Institution's walls are some of the world's greatest icons and artifacts -- the tattered 200-year-old flag that inspired the Star Spangled Banner, the 112-carat Hope diamond, the Apollo 11 lunar mission capsule and the Wright brothers' first plane.

There are also paintings by Impressionist masters, totem poles, meteorites and giant dinosaurs.

And for 160 years now, it's all been free and open to everyone.

But the Smithsonian, like other cash-strapped government institutions, is now looking to lever a little more cash out of these national treasures. Enter CBS Showtime Networks, which recently struck a multimillion-dollar contract that gives it special access to the museum's collections and curators to make documentaries.

Last year, the Smithsonian closed its in-house publishing arm and signed a deal with HarperCollins Publishing to produce 100 Smithsonian-branded books. And in 2002, the Air and Space Museum sold the naming rights to its movie theatre to defence contractor Lockheed Martin for $10-million (U.S.).

Taken in isolation, these deals are relatively easy to justify. Smithsonian officials insist the arrangements generate extra revenue and give the public wider access to its collection. Maybe so.

But the deals are part of a broader pattern that is all too commonplace in Washington, and elsewhere. Government assets, which belong to all taxpayers, have become a commodity in the brokering of access and privilege.

It's no wonder the Smithsonian regarded their deals as perfectly normal. Everything -- and sometimes everyone -- is for sale around this town.

If there is a fundamental lesson to be learned from the recent spate of corruption cases involving U.S. government contractors, lobbyists and members of Congress, it is that there is too much money in the system. And the only way to ensure true reform would be to publicly finance elections.

Members of the House of Representatives, who must go to the polls every second November, are perpetually hustling for campaign funds. Senators face election every six years. And during the hiatus before running, an incumbent must fill a war chest to dissuade potential challengers from entering the race.

Compounding the money problem is a practice known as earmarking, whereby individual members of Congress can add special provisions to larger spending bills without the normal vetting by committee. These so-called earmarks can mean tens of millions of dollars to special interests, sometimes to a single firm. The practice survives because everyone plays the game -- a bridge here and a grant there.

The commitment of Congress to reform these practices is suspect. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have recently passed ethics and lobbying reform bills -- the first major overhaul in a decade.

What's most surprising is what's still permissible, including taking flights on corporate jets. Under the new rules, members will still be free to fly anywhere they like on someone else's jet as long as they reimburse the jet owner for the equivalent of a first-class airline ticket.

Companies are eager to oblige. Their executives typically use these flights to get face-time with influential politicians. Top lawmakers have admitted to flying on dozens and sometimes hundreds of these flights. The most-cited reason for taking the flights is to attend political fundraising events.

The hitch is that the first-class ticket doesn't cover the true cost of flying the plane. The result is that big companies are essentially subsidizing luxury travel for members of Congress. Put differently: They are swapping a perk for access. And Congress apparently believes that's okay. Congress, however, wants to apply a different ethical standard to the Smithsonian. The House appropriations committee recently voted to cut its budget by $5-million (U.S.) to protest the CBS Showtime deal.

But no one should be too surprised that the directors of the Smithsonian would lose their moral compass as they look up toward Capitol Hill and Congress from their compound on the National Mall. The swapping of cash for access is a time-honoured tradition in Washington.

bmckenna@globeandmail.com
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