Congress Takes a Brush to the Budget, Barring Federal Funds for Portraits

A 2017 congressional committee report singled out this picture of Donald Rumsfeld as one example of the high cost of official portraits. Unveiled in 2010, after Rumsfeld's tenure as secretary of defense had ended, this official image — Rumsfeld's second — cost more than $46,000. (Washington Post/Getty Images)

Updated at 5:50 p.m. ET

For many elected officials, it's something of a rite of passage: After getting to Capitol Hill, bearing their constituents' hopes and fears on their shoulders, virtually every politician finally decides to take a stand — in front of a painter paid to make their portrait. Some even decide to sit for it.

But either way, for a long time many of those official portraits were paid for by the same patrons: U.S. taxpayers.

Not anymore.

On Tuesday, President Trump signed into law the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act, also known as — wait for it — the EGO Act.

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Under the new law, federal funds can no longer be used toward official painted portraits for federal government officials or employees. (It remains a little unclear if watercolor painters can find themselves a loophole.)

The law applies to members of Congress, heads of executive agencies, even the president himself. If one of them wishes to have an official portrait rendered in paint, they will need to retrieve the requisite cash from their own wallets — or canvass (homophone joke, see what we did there?) private donors for the cash. That's what the Obamas did for their own official portraits unveiled last month.

"I came to Congress to cut wasteful spending," tweeted GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy, who has pushed for this measure since he represented Louisiana in the House.

He had already succeeded in getting the ban slipped into spending bills in 2014 and 2016, but those riders were only temporary. The standalone bill, which renders the ban permanent, did not enjoy the same kind of success. Cassidy's campaign had gotten so regular, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, he even recycled his statement marking the bill's introduction in each new Congress.

But on Wednesday, he enjoyed his long-sought victory lap. "Our debt is over $20 trillion," his statement said. "There's no excuse for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paintings of government officials."

Now, it's fair to wonder just how much effect this law will have on that towering number. In a 2017 report issued by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the authors selected a slew of examples to highlight:

  • There was the $22,500 paid by the Department of Commerce for John Bryson's portrait, despite the fact that he served just eight months as chief of the department.
  • The $19,500 for Steve Preston, who served as secretary of housing and urban development for an even shorter span.
  • And the $46,790 paid by the Department of Defense for former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's second official portrait.

And then there's this one with a poodle, which goes unmentioned in the report but has drawn a different kind of attention.

And this one with spaceships.

All told, the report stated, from 2010 to 2013 more than $400,000 was spent on portraits displayed in agency buildings, "often in secure locations that are not open to the public."

But the federal government spent an estimated $4 trillion in fiscal year 2017 alone. The expenditure on portraits represents a fraction of that total so small it would be very difficult to clearly represent here. A single F-35 fighter jet costs about 250 times as much as all of the portraits bought during that three-year span, combined.

And portraits have not been the only source of concern for onlookers monitoring extravagant spending. Current HUD Secretary Ben Carson was called before a House committee earlier this month to explain the decision to buy a $31,000 dining room set for his office.

Outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has attracted scrutiny from his department's inspector general for an expensive overseas trip with his wife at taxpayer expense.

Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price already resigned from Trump's cabinet for reportedly using $400,000 of taxpayer money — or roughly 13 official portraits, according to the average price listed in the report — on private charter planes. He said he would pay a portion of that sum back.

But for backers of the EGO Act, ending the long tradition of taxpayer-funded official portraits means more than the numbers: they say it carries symbolic weight, as well.

"The expensive practice has a long history of criticism dating back to at least the Carter Administration," the 2017 committee report says. "Although portraits are a minor piece of the Federal budget, every dollar the government spends on vanity projects for federal officials is a dollar that is not spent improving the lives of everyday Americans."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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