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Vanity Portraits: Not Much of a Drain on the Budget

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, addresses the audience while former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looks on during Rumsfeld's portrait unveiling ceremony at the Pentagon, in 2010. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, right, addresses the audience while former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looks on during Rumsfeld's portrait unveiling ceremony at the Pentagon, in 2010. Department of Defense/AP File Photo

The stunning story made national network news: Agency heads were squandering taxpayer money by commissioning painters to produce vanity portraits of themselves, suitable for framing.

But buried in a recent Congressional Budget Office report scoring Senate legislation to address the situation is the slightly snarkily expressed verdict that the problem is actually minuscule.

The bill, S. 1820, reported by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on May 21, was introduced in December by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; and Deb Fisher, R-Neb. It would limit to $20,000 the federal funds that may be used for portraits of officials in the line of succession to the presidency, and prohibit funding for agency heads outside the line of succession. Under the bill, funds may be used to display such portraits, which may also be paid for privately.  

But CBO estimates that implementing S. 1820 “would have no significant effect on the federal budget.” Current appropriations law prohibits the use of federal funds for portraits in fiscal 2014, the nonpartisan scorekeepers wrote. Likely, the cost “would be less than $500,000 annually because we expect fewer than 20 portraits are purchased for federal officials not in the line of succession to the presidency in most years.”

CBO, the analysts continued, “is unaware of any comprehensive information on past spending on official portraits, but we expect that most portraits painted of federal officials not in the line of succession to the presidency are probably in the legislative branch and the Department of Defense.”  

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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