Taxpayer Dollars Spent on Official Government Portraits

Credit: Department of Agriculture

David Kerley, Jennifer Abbey, and Betsy Klein contributed to this report:

Long before cameras were invented, our founding fathers kept their images alive with painted portraits. Paintings of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are part of American history.

But what began as official documentation of early leaders is now a formality, a tradition, a sign of prestige - and, some say, a burden on taxpayers.

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense argues that it's time for a change. "You really have to really wonder, is it worth the cost?" Ellis said. "It certainly strokes their ego but at a cost to taxpayers, and we can't afford just ego strokes when we've got a trillion-dollar deficit and $16 trillion in debt."

Ellis and other watchdogs haven't been able to stop government spending on portraits of cabinet secretaries and generals. As the Washington Times first reported, the latest portrait for outgoing EPA administrator Lisa Jackson cost $38,350. Air Force Secretary Michael Donnelly's portrait cost $41,200.

Commerce Secretary John Bryson's portrait cost $22,500, the paper said. He served President Obama for eight months.

In the past two years alone, the Obama administration has spent almost $400,000 on oil portraits. The administration turned down ABC News' request to enter a building to see some of the portraits hanging. But the White House told ABC News it is spending less than previous administrations did.

Some of the oil portraits are commissioned while secretaries are still serving.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had a $22,500 portrait made, but when asked if we should stop doing oil portraits of former secretaries, he avoided the question.

"Honestly, you know, there are so many questions I'd be happy to answer about our budget, I just think that is a really small ball kind of question," he told ABC News.

Ellis disagreed.

"It just shows how Washington has become immune to the cost of things and the actual price," he said. "Twenty thousand dollars on a portrait, that's real money and that's real waste."