03.18.2013 1

Let Future Cabinet Secretaries pay for their own ego portraits

Source: Department of Agriculture

By Nathan Mehrens — Given the current federal budget situation, sequester, and everything that goes with it, now is a great opportunity to take a very hard look at the spending practices of federal agencies.  There is no shortage of areas where cuts could be made without affecting the agency’s mission.

One such area is perks that serve no measurable benefit to taxpayers, and could accurately be characterized as wasteful spending designed more to stroke egos of powerful officials than anything else.

Consider the long-standing practice in D.C. of commissioning painted portraits when an official leaves office.  Few people probably realize that these portraits are commissioned for heads of agencies and that they can cost tens of thousands of dollars.  For instance, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently blew almost $40,000 for the portrait of former Administrator Lisa Jackson.

This begs the question: couldn’t they just take a nice photo, have it printed on quality material like canvas, and frame it?  Surely this would be less expensive.

The EPA happens to have a “Chief Photographer,” Eric Vance, who among other things travels with the Administrator, “documenting the activities of the agency.”  In 2011, the last year for which salary data is available, he made $108,339.

He is an expert at portrait photography and would be a perfect choice to help the EPA save money in this area.

What Mr. Vance “like[s] to bring to the table is technical mastery.”  In discussing his portrait photography work Mr. Vance tries to “[e]licit the personality of the person that I’m photographing to show that they are a human being.  I don’t want a technically correct bureaucratic picture of a face.  I want a technically correct photograph of an individual.”

I have reviewed Mr. Vance’s work and it is truly beautiful.  Anyone would be proud to have him photograph their official portrait.

Couldn’t Mr. Vance photograph the Administrator and use a print from that photograph as the official portrait?

How much would a large portrait that is printed from a photograph cost?  The answer is a lot less than $40,000.  A large 40” x 60” framed print on canvas costs a little over $500, a far cry from $40,000.  Even if Mr. Vance spent a week on the project the total cost to taxpayers would only be a couple thousand dollars, and the finished product would still look terrific.

Doing this could save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, money that could be better used by the private sector to get people back to work.

The EPA is currently without an Administrator and Gina McCarthy, an Assistant Administrator, has been nominated for the position.  During her confirmation process she should be questioned about whether she will be responsible with the taxpayer’s money, and the area of portraits should be included in that questioning.

She should be asked to pledge to not spend money for a painted portrait of herself.

The reason for this is that the head of an agency sets the priorities and leads by example.  If the Administrator is flippant about spending money in a wasteful manner, those under her will do likewise.

If she makes a pledge to not commission an official painted portrait, but to instead use the services of her Chief Photographer she would be acting to save taxpayer’s money.  She would also be exhibiting humility that demonstrates an acknowledgement that she is to act for public, not private benefit.

If she declines to make the pledge she should be prepared to explain why her ego needs this perk.

The expenditures for portraits may not seem large in the context of an agency that has a multi-billion dollar budget.  However, it is indicative of the large problem of wasteful spending that seems to permeate every level of our government.

Every nominee like Ms. McCarthy should be asked to pledge to refuse this type of wasteful spending.  Those who decline the pledge should do us all a favor and stay out of public service.

Nathan Mehrens is the General Counsel of Americans for Limited Government.

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