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A perk of Capitol power, now a symbol of its excess

WASHINGTON >> In a corridor just a few feet from the floor of the United States Senate hangs a 19th-century oil painting of Henry Clay, the dexterous and venerated Kentucky lawmaker. He is portrayed with his hands folded and his lips pursed with slight impatience, as if, like his greatest admirer, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, he longs to escape formality and get back to the business of legislating.

The portrait, purchased by the U.S. government in 1881 for $4,000 along with nearby paintings depicting Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, is among scores of oil portraits that decorate the U.S. Capitol.

Today, were Clay to be memorialized in the traditional fashion — the trio of images would have cost $99,104.67 in today’s dollars — someone would have to shake a tin cup at donors. Or maybe start a super PAC.

Taxpayer-funded oil paintings of members of Congress — as well as of the president, the vice president and Cabinet members — have been officially banned, thanks to an amendment to the latest federal budget conceived by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who was offended by the practice.

The savings to taxpayers are negligible by federal standards. The cost of the portraits, according to a report prepared by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, averages roughly $25,000 apiece. Eliminating the funding, the report said, saves the government less than $500,000 annually. Context alert: The Pentagon’s new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs $98 million — without the engine. That’s about 3,920 portraits.

But in a trillion-dollar federal budget, in which it is increasingly hard to make a significant dent in spending short of cutting entire programs, agencies or war efforts, lawmakers love to find small symbolic savings, especially those that take a whack at the perks of the powerful.

“Families struggle to pay their mortgage and feed their families,” Cassidy said, “while the federal government spends money on paintings of government officials that are often placed in the back of a government bureaucracy, never to be seen by the public.”

Cassidy tucked the ban into a 2014 spending bill, and it was recently renewed in the budget for another two years. He tried to make the ban — the Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act, or “Ego” Act — permanent, but Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, objected to the measure on the Senate floor, leaving some Republicans to snicker that he just wanted his painting paid for when he retires next year.

Portraits of former House speakers and Senate leaders are among those historically paid for by taxpayers. (Reid’s office would not comment.)

Cassidy and other sponsors of the measure, like Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., were particularly irked by a $22,500 portrait of John Bryson, who served as secretary of the Department of Commerce for a mere eight months, and the $38,350 spent by the Environmental Protection Agency for a portrait of the onetime administrator Lisa Jackson.

They and others believe that officials should either pay for their portraits themselves — as many already do — or better yet, take a selfie.

“The expensive antiquated notion that all of these officials should get portraits is nonsense,” said Steve Ellis, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “A simple photograph would do. This is more about stroking egos than preserving history.”

Oil portraiture has served a role in documenting U.S. history from the time of the colonies. Art in Congress was acquired over time as the Capitol was constructed. Patriotic and commemorative art was sought, with the intent of committing the people and events of a new nation to posterity.

“The collection represents American history in many ways,” said Melinda K. Smith, the Senate curator. “They are not just portraits. There is a story behind each one of them.”

For instance, another painting of Clay — he served as a senator, secretary of state and House speaker, in addition to running for president several times — depicts him in the Old Senate Chamber, of which there are no known photographs, memorializing the final months of his life and the first session of the 32nd Congress. Consider, too, the portrait of Mike Mansfield, the Senate majority leader, in an unusually casual full-length pose. He was essentially tricked into standing for it, as he often claimed that he would rather not be remembered.

The Senate collection is largely made up of 19th-century art and classic formal portraiture, while the House has both traditional and more contemporary portraits.

In one House hallway hangs a striking portrait of the first black female elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm of New York, seemingly towering over the Capitol, a finger upheld in defiance. One can also view the likeness of Tom Lantos of California, onetime chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, depicted with his poodle, and Les Aspin of Wisconsin, the former head of the Armed Services Committee, rumpled, a tad frenzied and hanging out with his dog, Junket.

Many portraits hang in the public and restricted areas of the Capitol, in committee hearing rooms and out of visitors’ sight, such as the leadership offices, where heads of state are greeted.

Art in the Capitol follows U.S. portraiture history. Oil portraits were an important method of chronicling the 18th- and 19th-century lives of the powerful and well-to-do, said Brandon Brame Fortune, the chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Martha Washington commissioned portraits of herself and George.)

Later in the 19th century, some of the government offices began to pay for portraits, she said, through both public and private funds. “Portraits today use the same techniques, the same materials. They really haven’t changed,” she said. “Oil painting is very much alive and well.”

Portraits have come under attack as frivolous before. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter derided them as a luxury, yet the practice continued. Taxpayer, private and other fundraising has been employed, and some portraits are gifts.

A portrait of former Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers, R-Mass., the longest-serving female member of the House and a staunch advocate of veterans, was paid for by funds collected by veterans who donated the artwork to the House.

There was talk last summer of removing statues and portraits of Confederate leaders from the U.S. Capitol after the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina State House.

But many objected, including McConnell, who noted that the portraits of Webster of Massachusetts, Clay of Kentucky and Calhoun of South Carolina were chosen by a five-member panel headed by a certain senator of the day: John F. Kennedy. “The Capitol is a working history museum,” he said.

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