Getting the last $1 million for Oklahoma City bombing memorial proves a challenge
Buried in the massive defense bills approved last week by the House and Senate were very short provisions aimed at getting the federal government to meet an obligation made 16 years ago to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
If all goes as planned — and it took quite a plan — the bombing memorial’s endowment will get the last $1 million promised by legislation approved when President George W. Bush was in his first term.
“When we started this process, I was on maternity leave with my daughter — who is now driving,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum.
Obstacles to getting the last installment of the $5 million owed have been many, but the biggest were the structural changes in the memorial’s organization and Congress’ move away from earmarking money for local projects.
Members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation have been working on a solution, with Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Frank Lucas leading the effort with assists from others, including Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City.
Some hold positions that have been leveraged to get language into the defense bill, as it would normally be part of legislation involving the Department of Interior.
As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Inhofe will be key to getting the language into law, since he will be one of the lawmakers writing the final version of the defense bill.
The Republican senator said there had been some opposition to the language but that he was confident it would become law.
“That will be a reality,” he said in an interview.
From its inception, the Oklahoma City memorial had an unusual organizational structure, one designed to use the National Park Service but maintain local control through a government-owned corporation.
The structure didn’t work; there were problems meeting government accounting requirements and paying National Park Service employees through a trust.
Legislation overhauling the memorial organization was approved in 2004. The trust created to operate the site was dissolved, and the Park Service took on the responsibility for paying workers at the memorial site.
The bill made the memorial an affiliate of the National Park Service and pledged $5 million in federal funds to be matched by $5 million in private money.
Former Rep. Ernest Istook, a Republican who represented downtown Oklahoma City then, was an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee. He and Inhofe were able to secure $3 million of the federal funds in 2005 through earmarks. That was back in the days when lawmakers packed spending bills with billions of dollars in local projects.
In 2006, when Istook tried to put the rest of the $2 million into a spending bill, a North Carolina Republican whose subcommittee oversaw funding for the National Park Service, blocked the money; the same congressman had also blocked money for the memorial in Pennsylvania for Flight 93, the hijacked plane forced down by passengers before it could reach a target in Washington, D.C., on 9-11.
Istook ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006, giving up his House seat and the influence on spending.
Members of the delegation were able to secure $1 million in 2010, leaving $1 million owed.
When Ohio Republican John Boehner became speaker of the House in 2011, he banned earmarks. And the late Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who fought against earmarks for years, played a major role in ending them in the Senate, despite opposition from Inhofe.
The money for the memorial fell off the radar, and the challenges for securing the final installment mounted.
Delegation works on solution
Watkins never forgot about it.
And when she and the museum’s staff and volunteers began working on the 25th anniversary observance of the bombing — which was this year — she approached members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Watkins recalled, “We were (saying), ‘It’s still due to us, and do we go fight for it or do we just forget it? We really need to go get this.’”
As congressional staff members began exploring a way through the red tape to the money, they discovered that the fund created when the memorial was a unit of the National Park Service no longer existed, so there needed to be a new account to which the $1 million could be directed.
And the earmark ban is still in place, so lawmakers couldn’t just write a line-item in a spending bill.
Inhofe’s staff wrote language amending the 1997 legislation that created the memorial to allow the Park Service to provide the $1 million from its recreation and preservation account.
But the House parliamentarian wouldn’t approve that language for the House bill. So Lucas and Cole authored an entirely different amendment, one that requires a financial update on the memorial.
That language was intended just to get something into the House defense bill about the Oklahoma City memorial so when House and Senate negotiators worked on a final version of the defense bill, the two different sections could be reconciled into one clear provision.
'When we can get it'
Even in a presidential election year, with a very divided Congress, during a pandemic, the national defense bill is expected to become law. According to Inhofe, Congress has passed a defense authorization bill 59 years in a row.
If the memorial gets the $1 million, the money will go into the memorial’s endowment.
“I wish I’d had the million dollars in our endowment growing the last decade, but we’ll take it when we can get it,” said Watkins, who praised the delegation’s tenacity.
The memorial and museum have been hurt by the loss of visitors during the pandemic. The memorial received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which can be forgiven, and has cut expenses.
Watkins said the memorial is in the same condition as a lot of other museums and for-profit organizations — surviving in the short term but facing hardships if conditions don’t improve.
But she said the mhas a $20 million endowment and a strong relationship with the National Park Service.
“Our partnership with the Park Service today is as good as it’s ever been,” she said. “It’s phenomenal. We have weekly operations meetings. We’re on the site together there everyday … . It is the perfect site of the public and the private working together.”