Why the Spending Bill Would Ban Official Portraits

Federal officials have a history of commissioning expensive oil paintings for tens of thousands of dollars.

The official portrait of President George W. Bush was unveiled in 2012. A section in the 2014 spending bill would prohibit the federal government from paying for portraits of employees, including the president.
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Jan. 15, 2014, 7:29 a.m.

Fisc­al con­ser­vat­ives didn’t get everything they wanted in the 2014 spend­ing bill, but they did win the battle over oil paint­ings.

It might be mean­ing­less in the con­text of the $1.1 tril­lion om­ni­bus bill re­vealed Tues­day, but one sec­tion of the bill would save money by ban­ning the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment from pay­ing for paint­ings of the pres­id­ent, vice pres­id­ent, mem­bers of Con­gress, or oth­er of­fi­cials.

Those sav­ings might be small com­pared with is­sues re­lat­ing to the Af­ford­able Care Act or the de­fense budget, but Cab­in­et heads have man­aged to spend a sur­pris­ing amount on paint­ings in the past.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment spent $180,000 on of­fi­cial por­traits in 2012, ac­cord­ing to a Novem­ber 2012 re­view by The Wash­ing­ton Times. 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 in­vest­ig­a­tion. Be­fore Jack­son’s por­trait, the EPA spent about $30,000 on a por­trait of then-Sec­ret­ary Steph­en John­son, the news­pa­per said.

And The Wash­ing­ton Post found in 2008 that most por­trait con­tracts are awar­ded with no com­pet­it­ive bid­ding.

Ex­pens­ive por­traits drew op­pos­i­tion be­fore the is­sue found its way in­to the spend­ing bill. In April, Rep. Bill Cas­sidy, R-La., in­tro­duced the Elim­in­at­ing Gov­ern­ment-fun­ded Oil paint­ing (EGO) Act, which also would have pro­hib­ited fed­er­ally fun­ded por­traits of cer­tain of­fi­cials.

It’s worth elim­in­at­ing those costs even if it doesn’t make a no­tice­able dent in the budget, said Steve El­lis, spokes­man for the watch­dog group Tax­pay­ers for Com­mon Sense.

“At least it’s show­ing a nod to some level of fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity while we waste mil­lions and bil­lions else­where,” El­lis said.

Por­traits of the pres­id­ent, vice pres­id­ent, and oth­er ma­jor polit­ic­al fig­ures are un­der­stand­able, but a nicely framed pho­to­graph should be enough for less in­flu­en­tial of­fi­cials, El­lis said.

And some fed­er­ally fun­ded por­traits are loc­ated in se­cure areas of of­fice build­ings, off-lim­its to the pub­lic, adding to El­lis’s be­lief that tax­pay­ers should not pay for them.

As di­git­al cam­er­as be­come cheap­er and even the pres­id­ent uses a phone to take selfies, the pur­pose of painted por­traits has changed. Rather than simply doc­u­ment­ing lead­ers of ex­ec­ut­ive agen­cies, El­lis said they have be­come a lav­ish perk.

“There are very few people who could af­ford to pay for a por­trait at all,” El­lis said, “and times have changed.”

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