Paint by Numbers

Illustration by Tomasz Walenta for TIME; Getty Images (2)

I join the fight to end congressional waste by nixing oil paintings of federal officials

Part of my duty as a journalist is to root out corruption and waste in our government, but I’m not that into rooting. I’m more of a press-release reader. So I was thrilled to come across a press release from Senator Tom Coburn unearthing $30 billion wasted by the federal government. Coburn, understanding journalists like me, called his report “Wastebook” and designed it like a comic book, with a cover drawing of Superman lifting a garbage truck full of dolls, pears and a Christmas tree off an astronaut, while a blimp labeled ARMY flies over a dog holding a paper printed with the Obama election logo. Journalists like me, he clearly realizes, are usually high.

I read the 175-page report, which listed all the opportunities I was missing out on. I could get government money to blog about romance novels on the Popular Romance Project, market Bloody Mary mix or spend 70 days lying in bed for a NASA project. All of which you’d have to pay me a lot more to do than the government was offering. But when I got to Coburn’s 75th most wasteful federal expenditure, I realized that the government offered a perk I was very interested in: oil portraits. Last year, the federal government spent about $300,000 painting federal officials. Lori Garver, the former NASA deputy administrator, got a $23,000 portrait, and Steve Preston, who served only seven months as HUD Secretary, got one that cost $20,000. This is particularly wasteful, since we could easily turn this expenditure into a revenue stream by creating the Department of Nude Modeling.

I asked Coburn how much he thought would be fair for an oil painting of him. “I have no interest. My iPhone takes as good a picture as any painting,” he said. “If you’re in service to be memorialized, you’re in it for the wrong reason.” So I asked him what his favorite part of being a Senator was. “Getting to go home on Thursday night or Friday morning,” he said. I predict no one will ever make an uplifting Mr. Smith Goes to Washington–style movie about Tom Coburn.

Coburn, a Republican, has joined Democrat Jeanne Shaheen to author the Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act of 2013, which I read in its entirety, since it is about 400 words long and six of those are “The term ‘portrait’ means a painting.” The bill would set a $20,000 cap on portraits and would provide them only for people in the line of succession to the presidency. When I pointed out to Shaheen that there are 18 people in the line of succession, including the Secretaries of Energy, Transportation and Agriculture, she said, “I think we’re looking at what is usually considered the line of succession. Perhaps that’s something we need to clarify in the legislation.” I think the writer of that snappy “portrait/painting” bit is just the person for the job.

Then Shaheen said this: “When I had my portrait taken as governor, the money was raised by a private committee.” That’s right: Shaheen has sat for an oil painting. Unlike Coburn, she’s not antiportrait; she just believes they should be paid for via capitalism. The politics of portrait painting can be very hard to follow.

There’s a similar bill in the House–the Eliminating Government-Funded Oil-Painting (EGO) Act–which took seven people to write despite having fewer than 150 words, many of which were spent trying to create clever acronyms. Neither bill has any chance of coming up for a vote. To bypass our broken system, I asked three agency heads if they’d have their portrait done by my college friend Nicholas Weber, a brilliant artist who agreed to work for just $10,000 and–I felt the need to disclose to them–has been known to hit on his subjects. None of the agency heads took me up on my offer. This is the kind of entrenched bureaucracy we’re up against.

So instead, I’m going to offer to do for outgoing Secretaries what we do for outgoing editors: we will mail you a very impressive-looking fake Time magazine with you on the cover, with funny little inside jokes for the cover lines. Something like “HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan: Person of the Year” followed by “Telling a Cabinet Secretary to stay behind as the President’s ‘designated survivor’–just a nice way of saying, ‘You’ve got bad breath.'”

But I doubt they’ll take us up on our offer. That’s because there’s a constant pull away from democracy toward the pomp of royalty. Jimmy Carter actually replaced portraits with photographs, but Ronald Reagan quickly restored the painting tradition. We want our country to feel important, with each government building illogically designed like an ancient Roman replica and lined with faux-Renaissance-era portraits. Or as my friend Nicholas said, “Portraits tend to send a positive message, which is, Celebrate ourselves and each other.” Though it’s an equally important message that Coburn and Shaheen send about the fact that there might be a little too much celebrating going on.

This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.
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