Funding for lawmakers' portraits under fire

Funding for lawmakers' portraits under fire
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Lawmakers are debating whether to continue taxpayer funding for the sumptuous portraits of high-ranking officials that adorn the walls of Washington. 

The portraits — reserved for the vice president, cabinet officials, committee chairmen and congressional leadership — cost anywhere from roughly $20,000 to $50,000 apiece, with the money coming from private and public sources. 

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Sen. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) has pushed to make the elimination public funding for the portraits permanent, but recently saw that effort blocked by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidMcConnell not yet ready to change rules for Trump nominees The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Trump to press GOP on changing Senate rules MORE (D-Nev.). 

“I have no clue why the esteemed Democratic leader objects. All I can say is it is an incredible insensitivity to working families,” Cassidy said on the Senate floor last week. “There is a family out there right now struggling, not sure if they can pay their rent or their mortgage.” 

Washington “is the capitol of this country and all the riches of this country are brought to the capitol to paint paintings of government officials to be hidden away,” he continued. 

In the past, paintings of some Senate leaders – including the majority leader, minority leader and president pro tem – have been paid for with specifically appropriated federal funds, according to a report in Roll Call, and the payments for those paintings are capped at $70,000. House committee chairmen are already unable to use federal funds for their portraits. 

Cassidy’s bill, the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting (EGO) Act, has been law for 2014 and 2015, as it has been folded into government funding legislation.  

But when he attempted to make the ban on taxpayer funds for portraits permanent through a unanimous consent vote last week, Reid objected – essentially killing the move. 

“The Senate has responsible guidelines for purchasing portraits and capping the cost,” a Reid spokeswoman told The Hill.‎ “‎Senator Cassidy's bill would open the door to special interests paying for portraits.” 

Among other circles, the private sources of funding garner an equal amount of criticism. 

Government watchdogs in particular worry that the portrait funds, which lawmakers set up through the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, are a way for lobbyists and corporations to pay tribute to lawmakers and officials who were their allies during their public tenure.

In 2014 and the first half of 2015, corporations and lobby shops gave nearly $237,000 to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, a non-profit organization responsible for recording the history of the Capitol and that also takes donations on behalf of lawmakers. 

The non-profit took $141,000 in donations allocated for the portrait funds of specific lawmakers during that same time. 

Companies including Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Union Pacific, AT&T, CBS Corp. and Altria have set aside money for lawmakers to use in their portraits, according to Senate lobbying disclosures reviewed by The Hill. 

Lobbying firms including Alignment Government Strategies, The Russell Group and Williams & Jensen have also pitched in. 

Former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) received $22,000 in donations last year alone – with donations from Boeing, General Electric, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and AT&T. 

His portrait fund was set up and led a former staffer, and he told The Hill that he had no idea who any of the contributors were. 

McKeon’s portrait cost $22,000, according to a figure provided to The Hill from U.S. Capitol Historical Society, and the reception for the unveiling cost another $21,000.  

McKeon retired from Congress this year, and now works for lobbying firm McKeon Group. 

During the first six months of 2015, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), the chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, meanwhile, took in $15,000 as he took the gavel for the panel. Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and CSX Corp., an international transportation company, each provided $5,000. 

In 2014, former Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who joined PricewaterhouseCoopers after retiring this year, received $16,000 for his portrait. Figures are not yet available for how much it cost. 

There is no cap on how much companies or K Street firms are able to donate to a lawmaker’s portrait fund, and since the organization that manages them is a non-profit, those contributions are tax deductible. 

If a lawmaker’s portrait and reception go beyond the amount of the amount in their portrait funds, they have to fill in the shortfall themselves – with both personal or campaign funds allowed. 

Former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who had two portraits painted for his leadership roles on the House Energy & Commerce and the House Oversight and Government Reform committees. 

In order to save money, Waxman told The Hill, he had one reception for the two of them. The U.S. Capitol Historical Society told The Hill that the cost of the two portraits and the unveiling reception totaled about $113,000. 

Waxman said his portrait fund had a shortfall, and federal records show he donated $20,000 from his campaign account to the U.S. Capitol Historical Society last year. He said the amount he gave more than covered the budgetary gap.  

Federal records show that none of the donations raised by his portrait fund came from lobbyists or corporations.

While Cassidy’s EGO Act has been included in a financial services appropriations bill, his office still says they will make a move to pass it into permanent law. 

The legislation that bans federal funding for portraits covers all federal officials. 

In 2011 and 2012, the Obama Administration spent a total of $400,000 on oil portraits, according to an ABC News report. At the time, the White House said that’s less than in previous administrations.