Member Portraits Depict a Huge Loophole

Posted February 19, 2010 at 5:10pm

Correction Appended

A mere picture is worth a thousand words, but a portrait of a House chairman can be worth its weight in fundraising cash.

While Members of Congress face strict fundraising limits in their campaigns, as well as a wide-ranging gift ban while in office, no such prohibitions govern the special funds that may be established to procure and pay for the official portraits of House committee chairmen.

Donations to those “portrait fund committees” can also be hard to track, because there is no reporting requirement, although some transactions may appear in either lobbying disclosure reports or campaign finance records.

According to guidelines provided by the House Administration Committee, any sitting or previous committee chairman, with the approval of the House Fine Arts Board — composed of House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) and ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), and Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) — may establish a “portrait fund committee” to commission and pay for a portrait.

House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson said no official list of the portrait committees is maintained.

At least one lawmaker has collected funds for his future portrait in recent months, however.

Lobbying disclosures filed with the Clerk of the House, covering July to December 2009, show Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) raised $17,500 in donations for his portrait fund.

According to those LD-203 filings, which detail lobbyists’ contributions, the West Virginia lawmaker’s portrait fund received eight donations, the largest totaling $5,000 from Consol Energy Inc. Other donors are United Parcel Service, Union Pacific Corp., CSX Corp., O’Neill and Associates, Cliff Madison Government Relations, McGlotten & Jarvis, and Downey McGrath Group Inc.

Like some fellow lawmakers who have operated portrait funds, Rahall’s committee receives its checks via the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, a Congressionally chartered nonprofit organization.

Historical society President and CEO Ron Sarasin described the group’s role in the portrait process as that of an “intermediary.”

“We provide an accounting function for that committee that’s raising the money,” said Sarasin, a former GOP House lawmaker from Connecticut.

Sarasin said Members often seek out the society’s assistance after forming a portrait fund committee, although they are not required to do so.

The historical society does not hold fundraisers for the portrait committees, Sarasin said, but does serve as a collection point for contributions and can pay artist fees or other costs directly. Because donations are made directly to the USCHS, those funds are also tax-deductible, Sarasin said.

“As the bills come in, we pay the bills. We do that only if there’s money to do it,” Sarasin said. In addition, the arrangement allows the society to retain any extra funds not expended on the portrait or the dedication ceremony, which Members must also fund.

“It’s a bit of a fundraiser for us, and it helps in the process,” Sarasin said.

Sarasin could not say how many Members have utilized USCHS’ services for their portraits.

Lobbying disclosure reports and campaign finance documents show a half-dozen lawmakers have set up accounts via the USCHS since 2004, including Rahall and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), as well as House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), former Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and former Small Business Chairman Don Manzullo (R-Ill.).

According to lobbying disclosure reports, Lewis raised $24,300 from June 2008 to July 2009 for his portrait, which was put on display in June 2009.

The USCHS accepted payments on behalf of Lewis’ portrait fund, including the largest donations of $5,000 each from General Electric and the International Dairy Foods Association.

Ehlers also received funds via the USCHS, but only one contribution, $5,000 from Verizon in August 2008, is available on public reports. Ehlers, the former House Administration chairman, told the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press in February 2009 that he expects the portrait to cost about $20,000. Ehlers told the newspaper that most of those donations had come from individual donors, including several prominent Michigan GOPers.

Manzullo’s portrait fund, also managed by the USCHS, reported $850 from three donations through February 2009.

Campaign finance records also show USCHS-managed portrait funds for both Obey and Boehner.

Federal Election Commission reports show five donations totaling $11,500 to Obey’s portrait fund in 2004, including funds from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades political action committee, Ironworkers Political Education Fund, United Mine Workers of America Coal Miners PAC, Sheet Metal Workers International Association Political Education League, and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Legislative Education Action Program PAC.

Campaign finance reports also show Boehner’s portrait fund received a total of $3,500 from the American Federation of Teachers State and Local Fund, and the NCR Corp. PAC.

The House Ethics Manual, published by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, also notes that campaign finance laws allow Members to use campaign funds to pay for portrait costs. In addition to the portrait itself, Members are also responsible for funding any unveiling ceremonies.

In response to a request from Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), the Federal Election Commission ruled in 2007 that lawmakers may also use funds from their leadership PACs to pay portrait costs. Campaign finance records indicate Rangel’s National Leadership PAC paid $64,500 in 2008 to Maryland-based Simmie Knox Portraits (Knox also painted the official portrait of former President Bill Clinton).

Upon completion, official portraits are offered to the Fine Arts Board as a donation to the House art collection.

Correction: Feb. 22, 2010

The article incorrectly reported that Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) is currently a member of the House Fine Arts Board. He is not. The article also omitted Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) from the board’s membership.