Photo by Robert Bruce Murray III.
Photo by Robert Bruce Murray III.

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The Associated Press reports that deficit hawks are once again hunting for the great white whale that is a Smithsonian admissions scheme. As my colleague noted earlier, Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) raised the prospect of a $1 admissions fee during a hearing in 2006. Today, the bipartisan congressional commission tasked with devising a plan to reduce the deficit renewed the prospect of admissions charges, raising the hypothetical fee to $7.50.

Rep. Moran arrived at his number seemingly by way of folksy logic: Who can’t afford a buck? As it happens, a $1 charge would not even cover the costs associated with capturing $1 from visitors.

So where did the budget deficit commission come up with $7.50—which sounds not only like a higher price but a more sophisticated figure?

The Smithsonian Institution says that no one from the commission contacted the Smithsonian, so it’s not a number informed by what the National Mall thinks. (Had the deficit reduction commission reached out, the Smithsonian would have told them that Americans already pay for the museums: Two-thirds of the Smithsonian’s income comes in the form of taxpayer dollars.)

Here’s a guess as to how the commission arrived at $7.50 per ticket. The commission proposes to cut the Smithsonian’s budget by $225 million. Divide that figure by 30 million visits to Smithsonian museums last year and, voila!, $7.50 a pop. But the wizards on the deficit reduction commission fail to appreciate that this figure is 30 million visits, not 30 million visitors. Most Smithsonian attendees visit two to three museums per trip, according to the Smithsonian. A $7.50 hit for each stop on the National Mall would have a non-negligible impact on the number of visits each visitor makes.

A number of museum charters would require changes through acts of Congress in order to even consider an admissions scheme. By law, these museums are meant to be free to visitors. So a fee would be no easy feat.

So long as proposals to charge admission at the Smithsonian are never more serious than political trial balloons or back-of-the-envelope math, there is no threat of admissions fees any time soon. The flip side to this coin is that Congress seems no more serious about addressing the mounting facilities maintenance costs needed to ensure the preservation of the Smithsonian Institution collections.

Photo: Robert Bruce Murray III