Picture This: Tax Dollars May Again Fund Official Portraits

The congressional ban on the practice was temporary, but two lawmakers are proposing a solution.

Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush look at their official White House portraits during an unveiling ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington on May 31, 2012. 
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
May 19, 2014, 5:08 p.m.

It’s be­ing called a more “re­spons­ible” use of fed­er­al dol­lars for com­mem­or­ative por­traits of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. At least, that’s the name of the bill.

Turns out, the much-bal­ly­hooed ban on tax­pay­er-fun­ded por­traits of the pres­id­ent and oth­er pub­lic of­fi­cials that passed earli­er this year was not per­man­ent. The om­ni­bus fisc­al 2014 spend­ing bill did deny funds for com­mem­or­ative por­traits — but just for the fisc­al year.

On Wed­nes­day, however, the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee is set to con­sider le­gis­la­tion to com­pletely stop the prac­tice. Well, for most por­traits, any­way.

The Bi­par­tis­an Re­spons­ible Use of Tax­pay­er Dol­lars for Por­traits Act, pushed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would per­man­ently cap the amount of tax­pay­er ex­pendit­ures for such por­traits at $20,000. And the bill would lim­it even that amount to por­traits of people in the of­fi­cial line of suc­ces­sion to the pres­id­ency, such as the vice pres­id­ent, House speak­er, pres­id­ent pro tem of the Sen­ate, sec­ret­ary of State, and oth­er top of­fi­cials in ex­ec­ut­ive de­part­ments.

“There’s no reas­on to con­tin­ue ex­cess­ive tax­pay­er spend­ing on oil paint­ings of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials,” Shaheen said Monday in a state­ment.

Most mem­bers of Con­gress and oth­er ex­ec­ut­ive-branch agency heads would not qual­i­fy.

The bill would not, however, ban the use of non­fed­er­al funds to help pay for the paint­ings if the costs ex­ceed $20,000.

Con­tro­versy over use of tax­pay­er dol­lars for com­mem­or­ative por­traits has ex­is­ted for years. But amid de­fi­cits and spend­ing cuts, the is­sue has gained more at­ten­tion. For in­stance, a re­view by The Wash­ing­ton Times found that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment spent $180,000 on of­fi­cial por­traits in 2012. The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency spent nearly $40,000 on a por­trait of then-Ad­min­is­trat­or Lisa Jack­son; the Air Force spent $41,200 on a por­trait of then-Sec­ret­ary Mi­chael Don­ley; and the Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment spent $22,500 on a por­trait of Sec­ret­ary Tom Vil­sack, ac­cord­ing to The Times.

“We should pay for these types of por­traits in a way that pro­tects tax­pay­ers in­stead of wast­ing their money,” Shaheen said.

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