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Editorial: Congrats, taxpayers, you’re the owner of obscure paintings galore!

A federal budget deal was in the making. Benefits for the long-term unemployed and for poor people needing help with heating bills were in the balance. Health care reform was progressing in fits and starts. Judicial nominees were being considered and confirmed. The U.S. Senate had some serious matters on its plate.

So we were startled by the announcement last week from Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of her latest bipartisan effort: Working with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Shaheen is hoping to crack down on the frivolous use of taxpayer money on oil paintings.

Yep, oil paintings.

Shaheen apparently has nothing against art, but she’s frustrated by a proliferation of pricey portraits commissioned by the federal government – on your dime – commemorating public figures who are, shall we say, less than august.

The official statement struck us as a little peculiar – such a seemingly small matter at a time of such serious work – until, that is, we looked into the matter a bit.

Turns out, expensive official federal portraits have been proliferating like crazy.

It’s the Washington Times that first dug into this matter. Among its findings: a portrait for outgoing EPA administrator Lisa Jackson ($38,350) and a portrait of Air Force Secretary Michael Donnelly ($41,200). Commerce Secretary John Bryson’s portrait cost $22,500. Don’t remember him? He served for just eight months. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s 3-by-4-foot painting also cost taxpayers a cool $22,500. In the past two years alone, the government has spent nearly $400,000 on commissioned portraits of agency directors and Cabinet secretaries.

This practice, of course, didn’t start with the Obama administration. Under George W. Bush, taxpayers bought themselves a picture of former attorney general John Ashcroft for $40,000. And they got a portrait of former EPA administrator Stephen Johnson – a bargain at just $30,000. A picture of former agriculture secretary Ed Schaefer cost $30,500; a portrait of another Bush agriculture chief, Michael Johanns, cost $34,425.

Shaheen and Coburn’s bill, Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act, would limit taxpayer support for portraits to $20,000. For portraits that cost more than $20,000, private money could supplement the tax dollars. Equally important, the legislation would only allow federal money to be provided for portraits of officials in line for the presidency. In other words, lower-level federal bureaucrats would be out of luck.

It’s frankly hard to believe that it takes a law to rein in this sort of extravagance, but so be it.

Fancy portraits of self-important government officials aren’t going to break the bank, but neither do taxpayers need to be footing the bill. Shaheen and Coburn are right.

The irony, of course, is that there’s quite a good portrait of Shaheen, a former governor, hanging in the State House. Unveiled in 2007, it is the only portrait of a female chief executive among the many, many portraits of men. But in this parsimonious state, officials do not turn to the taxpayers for such expenses. Rather, private donors foot the bill. Washington could take a lesson.

Correction

In a New Hampshire geography quiz published on the Dec. 12 Forum page, readers were asked to name five one-syllable New Hampshire towns. Among the list of possible answers, we neglected to include Lyme.

How much does passing this law cost??

Jay-Zeus. 40 grand for a portrait of Ashcroft. How about a bill eliminating this gross misuse of our tax dollar altogether? I can see Presidents and maybe a few other notables, but this is nuts. Using a digital SLR, I'd be happy to do these portraits for about 2% of those prices.

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