- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Remember Ed Schafer? You should — you paid $30,500 for his hand-painted portrait.

How about Steve Preston? His official government portrait set hardworking Americans back a cool $19,500.

But the days of taxpayers picking up the tab for oil paintings immortalizing government officials, from the memorable to the obscure, are gone.

President Trump has signed a long-languishing bill making permanent a ban on the use of government funds to pay for oil portraits of the president, vice president, Cabinet members and lawmakers. The portraits often cost $20,000 to $40,000, even when their historical significance is close to nil.

The measure was first introduced in Congress in 2013 after reports that federal agencies spent more than $400,000 on portraits displayed in government buildings, often in secure locations not open to the public that paid for them.

According to the new law, the president, the Cabinet and top executive and legislative branch functionaries will either have to seek private donations to be memorialized on canvas or dip into their own funds.

The Obama administration was guilty of the vanity practice, often as high-level officials were on their way out. The Environmental Protection Agency spent nearly $40,000 on a portrait of Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, $41,200 for a painting of Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and $22,500 for a 3-by-4-foot portrait of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.

The Washington Times reported in 2012 that the Obama administration paid out at least $180,000 for official portraits during the previous year.

The George W. Bush administration also indulged in the Washington tradition, spending more than $40,000 on a painting of former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Mr. Schafer, whom trivia fans may be able to identify as a former governor of North Dakota who served as secretary of agriculture during Mr. Bush’s final year in office, also was immortalized in oil paint. So was Mr. Preston, who served as secretary of housing and urban development for seven months as the Bush administration was preparing to leave town.

The legislation, known as the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil Painting (EGO) Act, was introduced in January 2017 by Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, along with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The sponsors said their concerns were fiscal, not aesthetic.

“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,” Mr. Cassidy said at the time. “Tax dollars should go to building roads and improving schools — not oil paintings that very few people ever see or care about.”

In a statement Wednesday, Ms. McCaskill bade “good riddance” to the practice.

“Why the government ever used taxpayer dollars to pay for fancy paintings of government officials is beyond me, and I’m glad to have worked across the aisle to eliminate this ridiculous practice,” she said.

Big oil

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that the EGO Act could save the Treasury $500,000 a year.

Portraits of former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, costing about $500,000 and paid for in part with private donations, were commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and unveiled to great media fanfare last month. The White House Historical Association also has commissioned portraits of presidents with private donations.

The first formal oil portrait of Mr. Trump, painted while he was president-elect, was made public in December by C-SPAN. It joined 44 other presidential portraits as part of C-SPAN’s “American Presidents: Life Portraits” exhibit, which has been touring the United States for the past 17 years.

The Trump portrait was produced by veteran North Carolina painter and sculptor Chas Fagan, who worked from photographs. Mr. Fagan is the artist behind the Reagan statue at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the official canonization oil portrait of Mother Teresa.

Twelve acclaimed portrait artists — including the woman who painted Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush — refused the White House’s invitation to capture Mr. Trump on canvas.

The law against taxpayer-funded portraits pales in scale with a $1.3 trillion spending bill that the president reluctantly signed last week after declaring it wasteful and bloated.

Without a trace of irony, a Senate report from April 2017 said these portrait paintings “signal the greater problem of Congress failing to prioritize spending and wasting taxpayer dollars.”

The report noted that the $30,500 spent on Mr. Schafer’s portrait could have paid for over 9,000 meals under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch program.

It also cited a $46,790 portrait of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld paid by the Pentagon, the second official portrait of Mr. Rumsfeld funded by taxpayers.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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