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Portraits of Public Bureaucrats

Monday May 8th, 2017   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 5:54am PDT   •  

19422222 - teen girl painter drawing portrait with oil paints, professional painter at work over white bacground One of the little known perks of being appointed to head one of the major departments of the U.S. government is that you can have your official portrait painted to become an immortal part of the government’s growing collection of artwork.

James Varney of RealClearInvestigations reports on the downside for U.S. taxpayers of that practice.

In late 15th century Florence, members of the fabled house of Medici paid artists such as Sandro Botticelli to produce portraits of themselves worthy the world’s greatest museums. Today American taxpayers spend millions of dollars on portraits of government bureaucrats.

Most are hidden from public view, which may be a blessing, according to Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who notes, “I’m not so sure the public cares who the secretary of agriculture was 10 years ago.”

Cassidy wants to end such indulgences permanently. In recent years, he has managed to attach a rider to appropriations bills barring the use of public money for portraits of Washington officials. Now’s he’s aiming to stop it outright with his Eliminating Government-Funded Oil Painting Act, or the EGO Act, which recently passed out of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The act’s cheeky acronym captures what’s really at play so far as Cassidy is concerned.

“We’re not against portraiture, and we understand a painting of a president, say, might be priceless,” he said. “But you can’t tell me we should pay for a portrait of an EPA director that hangs in some back hallway where people can’t find it or the public doesn’t have access.”

Cassidy’s mention of the portrait of an EPA director isn’t random. Back in 2012, Representative Cassidy sent his communications director on a mission to find the government-commissioned portrait of President Obama’s first EPA director Lisa Perez Jackson, who occupied that post during his first term in office.

While you can see photographs of the unique portrait on the web site of Portrait Consultants, the firm that was commissioned to produce it, and even pictures of Jackson visiting the portrait studio to select a frame for it, it proved to be difficult to find after it was delivered to the federal government.

In 2012, when then-Rep. Cassidy first pushed a law banning the portraits, his communications director, John Cummins, went looking for the painting of EPA head Lisa Jackson, which cost taxpayers $40,000. He couldn’t find it. And that was with his congressional ID.

“The security guard had no idea what we were talking about,” Cummins said.

Eventually, the painted portrait of Jackson turned up, but nowhere the public who paid $38,350 for it and its frame in 2012 could view it.

Cassidy, who has been seeking to end the federal financing of such vanity portraits for years, has once again reintroduced legislation with bipartisan support earlier this year. The primary supporters of the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil-Painting (EGO) Act of 2017 make their arguments in the press release announcing the bill’s introduction:

WASHINGTON—US Senators Bill Cassidy, MD (R-LA), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Deb Fischer (R-NE) introduced the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil-Painting (EGO) Act of 2017 in the US Senate.

“When America is trillions of dollars in debt, we should take every reasonable measure to reduce the burden passed on to our children and grandchildren,” said Dr. Cassidy. “Tax dollars should go to building roads and improving schools—not oil paintings that very few people ever see or care about. Congress has passed the EGO Act before, let’s pass it again.”

“Banning government officials from spending taxpayer dollars on expensive self-portraits is a no-brainer, and a great step toward draining the Washington swamp,” Sen. Johnson said. “I look forward to continuing to use the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to eliminate government waste wherever possible.”

“I’d encourage anyone who’s commissioned a portrait using Missourians’ hard-earned tax dollars to come back to my state with me and ask folks how they feel about it—they’ll get an earful,” McCaskill said. “This bill just says you should pay for your own portraits and not ask taxpayers to foot the bill. I can’t imagine anyone who’d disagree with that.”

“The EGO Act would save taxpayer dollars by cutting frivolous spending on lavish portraits of government officials. Congress has a responsibility to conduct proper oversight and root out all forms of government waste. It’s pretty simple: if you want a portrait, pay for it yourself,” said Fischer.

The last time the bill was introduced back in 2015, it was blocked, without any statement of justification, by then-minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who has since retired from the Senate.

The portraits cost anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 apiece. The federal government has hundreds of them in its collections, as this limited selection of federally-commissioned portraits makes clear.

The EGO Act of 2017 is a bill whose time is long past due. Today’s members of the Senate and the House have an opportunity to demonstrate that they’re willing to set aside the publicly-financed demonstration of their egos to benefit millions of American taxpayers, many of whom would never consider wasting their money on having their own portraits painted, much less those of government bureaucrats.

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May 2017