Congress Passes Bill Banning Taxpayer-Funded Official Portraits
The official portraits of former U.S. President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama have been showered with accolades and acclaim since their unveiling in January. Though the paintings hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and immortalize two figures who blazed a trail through American history, it was private donors, not the public, who covered the combined $500,000 it cost to commission the works.
The same isn’t true of some of the portraits of lesser-known public servants—from agency heads to committee chairs—that line the hallways and meeting rooms of the nation’s capital. Taxpayer-funded portraits of government officials have long been a bugbear for conservative deficit hawks and even some Democrats, who argue they are a waste of money and a testament to political narcissism. President Jimmy Carter criticized publicly funded portraits as far back at the 1970s, viewing an oil painting as a luxury when a photograph would suffice.
This week, opponents of federally funded portraits scored a major victory after Congress passed the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act (the EGO Act, for short) with bipartisan support.
The act bans taxpayer money from being used to pay for the creation of a portrait of any government employee or member of Congress, including the President and Vice President. If signed by President Trump, the measure would make permanent a temporary prohibition on such portraits that has been in place since 2014. (The tradition of getting a portrait will not be eliminated—indeed, many official government portraits are already paid for by private donors, and there’s no doubt that practice will continue.)
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that eliminating publicly funded portraits would save less than $500,000 annually given that fewer than 20 portraits are paid for in most years, according to the report. The savings amount to a statistically insignificant percentage of overall government discretionary spending, which clocked in at $1.2 trillion in 2017, according to the CBO.
But deficit watchdogs—including Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy, the bill’s longtime proponent and one of its sponsors in the Senate—argue that there is no reason the government should be using any money to pay for official portraits.
“The national debt is over $20 trillion,” said Cassidy in a written statement Wednesday. “There’s no excuse for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paintings of government officials. I look forward to President Trump signing this bill into law.”
The bill hits President Trump’s desk not long after his administration was embarrassed by a series of spending scandals. The Department of the Interior reportedly paid $139,000 to renovate the office doors of secretary Ryan Zinke, while the staff of Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, shelled out $31,000 for a furniture set.
But supporters of the EGO Act can point to examples of costly portraits highlighted in a Senate report accompanying the measure, which found the cost of such portraits ranges from $19,000 to $50,000. One example that has particularly rankled critics is the $38,350 spent by Lisa Jackson, the chair of the Environmental Protection Agency who served under President Obama, on her portrait. The Department of Defense paid $41,200 for a portrait of Air Force secretary Michael B. Donley, while former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s portrait cost taxpayers over $40,000, according to the report. John Bryson, the former secretary of the Department of Commerce, received a $22,500 portrait after serving only eight months.
Some of the taxpayer-funded paintings are not even hung in public places, but installed on the walls in out-of-bounds meeting rooms and reception areas.
“Every dollar the government spends on vanity projects for federal officials is a dollar that is not spent improving the lives of hardworking Americans,” said Pennsylvania representative Matt Cartwright, the bill’s Democratic sponsor in the House, in a statement. “It’s just wrong to spend taxpayer dollars on portraits the public will never see.”
Cassidy first introduced a version of the EGO Act while a member of the House in 2013. While a temporary ban came into place a year later, then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid objected to attempts to make it permanent in 2016. The efforts of the Nevada Democrat caused some Republicans to “snicker that he just wanted his painting paid for” when he retired, the New York Times reported in early 2016. Reid ultimately used $7,000 in campaign funds, not taxpayer funds, for his official portrait when he did step down.
The EGO Act subsequently earned broad support, passing by unanimous consent in the Senate in September, and then again in a voice vote in the House last week. A technical change required the bill to be passed again in the Senate on Wednesday.
“This is a sad day in the swamp, to eliminate oil paintings of men and women who consider themselves very important, to make sure that taxpayer funds are never used for such a thing,” said Virginia congressman Gerry Connolly, a Democrat, in his floor speech in support of the act.
“This bill strikes at the uncontrolled egos and, I hope, sends a message to those narcissists among us that they can stay that way if they wish, but the taxpayer is not going to pay for their oil painting,” he added.
But those who support the paintings say they aren’t enshrining narcissism—they’re creating future historical objects that teach us about the figures who governed the United States. “The collection represents American history in many ways,” Melinda K. Smith, the Senate curator, told the New York Times in 2016. “They are not just portraits. There is a story behind each one of them.”
“The timelessness of an oil painting cannot be equated with a snapshot, because the artist spends countless hours making a unique, highly personal image,” portrait painter Carol Tambor wrote the Times in response to their article. “If it is only the price that Americans might find excessive, I hereby offer my services gratis to any member of Congress.”
If President Trump signs the EGO Act, there may be some government employees looking to take Tambor up on her offer.
Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.