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Portraits of Committee Chairmen: They’re Up the Wall

Mica in front of his portrait in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee room. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Mica in front of his portrait in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee room. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A House chairman usually ends up hanging around the committee room years after he or she retires.  

No, the former chairman is not roaming the room per se, clinging to the halcyon days of wielding the gavel. Rather, it is the lawmaker’s image that will watch over the committee in the time-honored tradition of committee chairman portraits.

“You’re going to provide a legacy for them, a part of their legacy which will hang for hundreds of years,” said Ann Fader, president and CEO of Portrait Consultants, which has been commissioning chairmen portraits for the past 20 years. “It takes a lot of discussion and a lot of preparation”

While committee chairmen portraits are a rite of passage in the House, the tradition is not as strong in the Senate — where chairmen portraits vary by committee.  

According to the Office of the Clerk, the House tradition dates back to 1891 and the first chairman portrait depicts James Garfield after his tenure heading the Appropriations Committee.  

Fast-forward more than 120 years, and the portraits have changed significantly, notably including objects and images to personalize the images.  

Take the massive portrait of Rep. Don Young , R-Alaska, which hangs in the center of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee room. The portrait depicts a scenic Alaskan background complete with an Alaska railroad train and an Alaska airlines jet; nods to the committee itself and Young’s home state.  

Next to Young’s portrait is a modest painting of Rep. John L. Mica , R-Fla., but it still includes some identifiable features, including a Sunshine State flag.  

“I insisted on two things. One: in the picture, they have some hint that that’s a Florida guy. That’s one hint,” Mica said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. “And then, two, I also made sure we had a plaque on it so they’d know who it was when I’m long gone.”  

Mica said his portrait is also simpler because he did not want a costly painting. “Some of the portraits are very expensive and I’m very frugal,” he said. He noted he was not aware of the final price tag of his portrait. “They keep us out of that,” he said, but estimated that it was under $20,000.  

According to Fader, that is in the lower price range for portraits, which can typically range from $25,000 to $50,000 depending on the portrait size and the artist.  

None of the House chairman portraits are paid for with taxpayer dollars. However, the portraits of Senate leaders are paid for by federal funds.  

In 1999, the Senate began the Senate Leadership Portrait Collection to capture majority and minority leaders and presidents pro tem. According to a Senate source, the Senate Commission on Art commissions those portraits, which are paid for with federal funds appropriated to the Senate collection fund. The portraits are capped at $70,000 apiece.  

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is leading the effort to prohibit federal funds from being allocated for portraits. Her bill, the Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act of 2013, was reported to the full Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in July.  

When it comes to the House chairman portraits, lawmakers are tasked with setting up private portrait fundraising committees to solicit donations for the painting.  

House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., enlisted his former chief of staff to head up his committee, because it must be separate from the congressional office.  

The fundraising committee often works with the U.S. Capitol Historical Society to cover the costs.  

“What we do is offer our services to be the conduit for contributions for the portraits,” said ex-Rep. Ronald Sarasin, R-Conn., president of the historical society. Sarasin explained that the society sets up an account to track the money coming in and then the historical society pays the bills using the donations.  

Making a donation to the society, rather than just a portrait committee itself, counts as a charitable contribution for tax purposes. Also, any extra funds can be donated to the society.  

House chairman typically know they have the opportunity to have a portrait done, and they can also dictate the timing. Some lawmakers have them painted during their chairmanship, other after they relinquish the gavel or even after they leave Congress. Other portraits may be done posthumously.  

Often someone reaches out to the historical society on behalf of the chairman to inquire about the portrait process, which can take from eight months to 14 months. Then the office finds a broker, which is where Portrait Consultants comes in.  

Fader will meet with the lawmaker to talk about the goals for the portrait and preferences for painting style, and then will help select an artist. The artist and the lawmaker work together on the final product.  

“The most successful portraits are a result of that close collaboration, the one between the artist and the subject,” Fader said.  

McKeon is currently having his Armed Services portrait done, which will be unveiled in September. He has worked closely with the artist who he said has a “more hands-on approach” than the person who painted his Education and Workforce Committee image .  

When the artist met with McKeon about the Armed Services portrait, the artist said he wanted to make the portrait unique. So McKeon stood in the Speaker’s Lobby as the artist snapped a number of pictures of him with the Rayburn House Office Building in the background.  

“There’s nothing personal in it, just me,” McKeon said. He and his wife recently saw the portrait and he said it “looks great.”  

McKeon also noted that in the years to come, people passing by his portrait might not know who he was. But the portrait could have historical significance for his family. He said one day he might have a great-great grandchild visiting the Capitol Building who can say, “That was my great-great grandpa.”

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