Ban on Executive Oil Portraits Extended in Spending Bill

Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is pushing the measure. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., is pushing the measure. Flickr user House GOP

Any agency head who had thoughts of commissioning a portrait artist would be thwarted under a provision of the massive “CRomnibus” spending bill on the verge of passage in Congress.

As he did last January, Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who was elected to the Senate in a runoff last Saturday, successfully inserted a provision that “prohibits funds for the painting of a portrait of an employee of the federal government including the president, the vice president, a Member of Congress, the head of an executive branch agency, or the head of an office of the legislative branch.”

That language now in Section 736 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, however, would expire with the fiscal 2015 appropriations package next September, according to Cassidy’s staff.

 “Can you believe that taxpayers paid $40,000 for a commemorative portrait of [then-Environmental Protection Agency] Administrator Lisa Jackson and over $20,000 for a 3-by-4 portrait of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack?” Cassidy asked in April 2013 when he introduced a bill for a permanent ban, titled the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil-Painting (EGO) Act. “At a time of trillion-dollar deficits, these portraits are a ridiculous and unnecessary luxury. …As Americans tighten their budgets and cut excess, their government should do the same. Lisa Jackson can borrow my camera for free.”

The new extension of the ban emerged the same week that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is ending his four-year tenure as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, saw his own portrait unveiled at a Tuesday hearing. Committee spokesman Frederick Hill noted that “House committee chair portraits aren't paid for with taxpayer funds.”

House leaders must raise money for oil portraits privately, while the Senate has long allocated funds for paintings of prominent senators.

A Senate bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla.,  cleared the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in July but was never brought to a floor vote. The Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act would have capped spending on portraits at $20,000 and funded them only for officials in line for succession to the presidency.

A Shaheen staff member said if the next Congress decides to fund such portraits, the senator hopes to renew her bill to limit the paintings commissioned and lower costs.

Spending on portraits of Cabinet secretaries has been mocked on network news as an example of wasteful vanity spending. The Congressional Budget Office, however, has scored the potential savings from a ban as minuscule.

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