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Could the Smithsonian No Longer Be Free?

Panda Tai Shan, on his last day at the National Zoo in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010. Tai Shan was born at the zoo in 2005 but was sent to China to become part of a breeding program. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The leaders of President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission have both liberals and conservatives up in arms with their recommendations for reducing the deficit, which include controversial ideas like reducing annual cost-of-living increases in Social Security and raising taxes.

It turns out, however, the commission has also angered art and animal lovers.

The draft proposal, penned by commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, suggests a number of ways to cut discretionary spending by more than $200 billion in 2015 -- including reducing federal funding for the Smithsonian and the National Park Service. The commission co-chairs suggest the Smithsonian Institution should charge admission fees at its 19 museums and the National Zoo, which are all currently free, to make up for the lost funding.

If the Smithsonian's federal funding were cut by $225 million in 2015, it could make up for it by charging an average fee of $7.50 per visitor, they argue. Bowles and Simpson point out that several notable private museums in the United States charge anywhere from $10 to $20 per visitor, with lower rates for children and seniors, while zoos charge even more.

Simpson acknowledged yesterday that he and Bowles looked for ways to cut the federal budget in both large and small ways -- and will thus anger many people, Businessweek reports. "We have harpooned every whale in the ocean and some of the minnows," Simpson said.

While most journalists yesterday focused on the more significant suggestions from the commission co-chairs, the proposal to cut the Smithsonian's funding was criticized by some prominent arts journalists and mocked by some liberal journalists on Twitter.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and Tyler Green, editor and writer for the prominent arts blog Modern Art Notes, both deemed it a "bad idea" for the museums to start charging entrance fees.

Richard Kim, senior editor of The Nation magazine, complained, "Deficit Commission includes culture wars red meat like charging admission to Smithsonian. Because that will reduce our deficit so much."

Adam Serwer, a writing fellow at The American Prospect, joked, "Fiscal commission suggested charging for smithsonian/zoo. All those freeloading DC public school children will finally get their comeuppance."

The Smithsonian Institution has, in fact, kept its museums and the zoo free so that they are not cost-prohibitive for schoolchildren or others -- "so you don't have to have any income level" to enjoy them -- Smithsonian Institution spokesperson Linda St. Thomas told the Hotsheet.

The Institution is 60 percent federally funded, St. Thomas said, and has offered free admission since 1846. She said the Institution's board of regents has considered charging admission fees a number of times but has always rejected the idea. St. Thomas did not comment on the proposal from the deficit commission co-chairs because it is the Institution's policy not to comment on recommendations expected to be considered by Congress.

If the Smithsonian Institution were to ever institute fees, it may particularly anger those in the Washington metro area, where the National Zoo's pandas are a particular source of pride.

"Fiscal commission will pull free admission to the National Zoo pandas out of my cold, dead hands," Tweeted Center for American Progress blogger Matt Yglesias.

Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.
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