In advance of today’s House vote on a series of bills to provide more than $50 billion in federal aid for Hurricane Sandy, the Heritage Foundation circulated this ominous video on pork-barrel spending that supposedly made it into the relief bill. Their list includes $2 million to repair roof damage to the Smithsonian’s museums, an item many have targeted as proof that the bill funds projects unrelated to the superstorm’s destruction. Commentary Magazine listed it as one of the bill’s “most outrageous requests,” and a joint release from Sen. John McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn in December described the allocation as “$2 million to repair damage to the roofs of museums in Washington, D.C., while many in Hurricane Sandy’s path still have no roof over their own heads.”
In fact, the damage which that $2 million is intended to fix does not predate the storm. “In all cases, [the funds are for] roof leaks caused by heavy winds and torrential rain,” Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian Institution spokeswoman, told me in an email this afternoon. “Hurricane Sandy caused the roof damage which is why we put in the request. In several cases, it exacerbated smaller leaks, in other cases, it caused new leaks.”
In other words, the request for $2 million fits pretty squarely in the definition of “emergency aid.”
“Any water damage is dangerous to the collections,” she explained. “One example, the Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum (near Dulles airport) houses the Discovery shuttle. That building had 27 separate roof leaks that were directly attributable to Hurricane Sandy.”
And that $2 million is being used to repair no less than the following: The Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, the Air and Space Museum, several buildings at the National Zoo, and the Museum Support Center in Maryland, which the organization has already “temporarily patched.”
To be fair, conservatives weren't the only ones fanning the flames. Mainstream media couldn't get their facts straight, either. ABC News reported on Dec. 13 that $2 million was for damage "that pre-dates the storm." A Jan. 2 Reuters article made the same mistake, and Fox Business and the Washington Free Beacon promptly repeated it. And this morning, an Atlantic Wire blogger claimed the $2 million was "to fix an (apparently quite expensive) roof at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington," then called the item superfluous: “$2 million, really?”
Conservative commentators could almost be forgiven for thinking that, indeed, the $2 million to repair many Smithsonian roofs was an expense that had no business being in the Sandy aid package—if they hadn’t seized on it as a reason to hold up all $51 billion in aid.