Cabinet officials who beat the oil-portrait ban await their big reveal

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the unveiling of her official portrait as the 64th Secretary of State at the State Department in Washington, Monday, April 14, 2008. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson) Former secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the unveiling of her official portrait as the 64th Secretary of State at the State Department in Washington, Monday, April 14, 2008. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

Some cabinet secretaries may experience portrait envy this week.

The top officials who dreamed of seeing their likeness forever enshrined in the halls of their agency will wistfully watch as President George W. Bush’s former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff has his painting unveiled Thursday.

In the name of austerity, Congress included a policy rider in the fiscal 2014 omnibus spending bill banning the government from spending tens of thousands of dollars on the almost life-size oil paintings made of top government officials after they leave their post.

But it’s just a one-year moratorium (actually less since the omnibus is from January to October) unless Congress renews the ban or makes it permanent. So nothing is set in stone, and finishing one of those ornate portraits is a multi-year endeavor. So, current secretaries, hope is not lost.

The Homeland Security Department first awarded a contract to Portraits, Inc. for Chertoff’s painting in September 2008 for the bargain price of $30,500, according to USASpending.gov. His predecessor, Tom Ridge, had his portrait unveiling last May.

The same company, according to its Web site, is also tasked with producing Bush’s former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s portrait, for which the agency set aside $52,450.

The Washington Times in 2012 drew attention to the exorbitant cost of the portraits, pointing out that the Obama administration had already started commissioning artists to paint its top officials at tens of thousands of dollars a piece. The news report prompted members of Congress to pursue legislation to stop what one Republican called, “a ridiculous and unnecessary luxury.”

So appropriators jumped at the low hanging fruit and included language in its spending agreement that no federal funding be used to paint a new portrait of any federal employee, including the president or the vice president. (Though one government watchdog tells us it’s highly unlikely that even if the ban stands there won’t be an exception made for the Obamas to join the other presidents and first ladies whose portraits decorate the East Wing.)

When oil paintings were in vogue (think Gilbert Stuart) photographs were, of course, not an option. Perhaps a modern day, cost-effective alternative could be taken with a smart phone and an Instagram filter?

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.

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Colby Itkowitz · March 25, 2014