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For the third consecutive Congress, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is fighting to secure a home for the National Women’s History Museum.
The ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee reintroduced legislation on Friday that would allow the museum, which currently does not have a permanent home to display its collections, to move into the Old Post Office Building glass annex on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.
Located just off the National Mall, the building is owned by the General Services Administration and has been unoccupied for more than a decade. The museum identified the site as a potential home several years ago, and Collins has backed legislation directing the GSA and museum to enter into a leasing agreement since 2003.
Supporters say the measure provides a cost-effective way to bring women’s history to a space near the National Mall. Under the plan, the museum would pay fair market value to rent the annex and pick up renovation costs, saving federal dollars, Collins said.
“Such a museum would also showcase the many important social, economic, cultural and political contributions that women have made to our country,” Collins said in a statement. “And all this could be done at virtually no cost to taxpayers.”
A number of sites were identified by the museum as a potential home, but the post office annex’s proximity to the National Mall made it the top pick, said museum President Joan Wages.
“We thought we would help the federal government do something constructive with it,” Wages said of the space.
“The government has to take care of it, keep it from crumbling. So this is kind of a win-win,” she later added.
Eighteen additional lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors on the bill, including 14 of Collins’ fellow female Senators. (Sens. Daniel Akaka [D-Hawaii], Bob Bennett [R-Utah], Dick Durbin [D-Ill.] and George Voinovich [R-Ohio] are the male co-sponsors.)
The legislation fared well in the Senate during the 109th Congress, passing the chamber by unanimous consent. But it floundered after being sent to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.
Wages said some committee members fought the bill on the basis that the museum should compete with other institutions for the space, an argument she disputed.
“Congress has never directed a museum to competitively compete for a site,” Wages said.
The outlook for the bill in this Congress remains unclear. On the Senate side, the measure likely will be brought up through the Governmental Affairs Committee, said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley.
“Sen. Collins is confident that the bill will find broad bipartisan support,” Kelley said, pointing to the array of co-sponsors already signed onto the bill.
A committee aide said Monday that there is no indication the House panel would move on the museum plan in the immediate term. But that doesn’t suggest the plan might not go into effect in the near future.
The executive branch can move independently on the plan without Congressional action, and the GSA already has asked for and received “initial expressions of interest” for the site, the aide said.
Transportation Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who sits on the panel, support the concept of a women’s history museum, the aide added.
The Congressional Budget Office confirmed that the plan would not have a significant impact on the federal budget in a report issued in April 2005.
“GSA would like to redevelop the entire Old Post Office area as a whole or in sections, but does not expect to find a private party to lease the site in the next few years,” the report reads. “GSA anticipates that the facility could generate at least $2 million in annual rental receipts if a lessee could be found.”
The report did note, however, that the museum would not be required to pay rent for its first five years in the building.
Wages said she is hopeful Congress will move on the bill this session. Besides saving taxpayer dollars, the plan also makes fiscal sense for the museum, which relies on private donations and sponsorships to survive, Wages said.
Although the site is smaller than initially anticipated — the museum’s private offices would need to be located off-site — it is already equipped with museum-ready features, including an auditorium, Wages said.
“We thought that there would be, comparatively, less cost involved than starting from bare ground,” Wages said.
A slew of historians, curators and anthropologists already have put together a broad umbrella of issues that could be featured in the museum, Wages said. Those issues include women’s political activities, how women impacted communities and the role of women in the home and public sphere, Wages added.
“It was women who lobbied for and campaigned for pasteurization of milk, and city parks and libraries, clean water and sewage systems,” Wages noted.
It is important those accomplishments be featured alongside other institutions honoring American history, Wages added.
“The Mall is the center of attraction for this city, for tourists,” she said. “Tourists come to this city to see museums. ... We want to be among them.”