In Brief

US Government Can No Longer Fund Official Portrait Paintings

The “Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act” prohibits the use of federal funds for commissioning portrait paintings.

President Trump speaking before an equestrian portrait painting of President Theodore Roosevelt (official White House photo by Andrea Hanks, via Flickr)
President Trump speaking before an equestrian portrait painting of President Theodore Roosevelt (official White House photo by Andrea Hanks, via Flickr)

United States government workers who’d hoped their legacies would endure for decades in painted portraits were dealt a crushing blow today, when President Trump signed the “Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Actinto law.

The bill — dubbed the “EGO Act” for short — “prohibits the use of funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the federal government to pay for an official portrait of an officer or employee of the federal government.” Though it is unlikely to have any impact on official presidential portraits like the recently unveiled Obama portraits — which are generally privately funded — it does mean that no future Secretary of the Air Force will get to spend $41,200 in government funds on an official portrait (as Michael B. Donley did, according to USA Today).

The title of the bill suggests that it solely targets oil paintings, although its text is less specific and covers all paintings regardless of material. The law does not, however, explicitly ban official portraits rendered in oil stick, charcoal, ink, bronze, clay, and a range of other materials. (The legal standing of menstrual blood as a portrait medium remains unknown.)

The EGO Act was introduced by Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, and is intended to cut down on spending of taxpayer dollars. “I came to Congress to cut wasteful spending,” Cassidy wrote on Twitter after his bill became law. “Our debt is over $20 trillion. There’s no excuse for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paintings of government officials.”

Though the EGO Act found favor with the current Republican-controlled Congress and White House — Trump, after all, is known to have very strong opinions about portraits — Senator Cassidy’s previous attempt to get the bill passed was scuttled in 2015 by then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

“That people in Washington would be insufficiently aware that the average family is making $40,000 a year, the same as what one of these paintings can cost and not care, is an indictment of those who do not care,” Cassidy said at the time. “I regret that there is objection to this, but we will bring it up later, and I thank you for your time.”

This time around, the bill received bipartisan support, including from two Democrats who co-sponsored the EGO Act, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Senator Jon Tester of Montana.

“Good riddance. 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,” McCaskill said in a statement. “Missourians expect me to be their voice in Washington and protect their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. I’m proud that there’s now one less absurd thing that Missourians are on the hook for.”

According to a 2012 report by the Washington Times, the government had, in the previous year, spent some $180,000 on official portraits. For comparison’s sake, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the Republican tax plan passed last December will add more than $1.4 trillion to the national debt over the next 10 years.

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