Senators Nix $250K in National Guard Paintings

Lawmakers have nixed a series of historical paintings to be commissioned by the National Guard, totaling a quarter million dollars, as part of annual authorizing legislation and amid the Pentagon's argument that the president's proposed defense budget represents the bare minimum that can be spent on national defense in the coming year.

While not the several hundred dollar hammer of Pentagon lore, the National Guard has asked to commission five paintings in fiscal 2016 — and increased funding to account for four additional works of art — at a cost of $62,500 each, according to the report that accompanies the Senate Armed Services Committee's annual defense bill. 

Led by Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee criticized the cost of each painting, saying the Guard should focus its funding on higher priorities.

In their respective fiscal 2016 defense authorizations bills — the annual legislation that sets Pentagon policy and funding levels for the coming year — both the House and Senate cut funds for the program. The Senate's bill (S 1376) specifically cuts $250,000, the total of the four additional paintings the Guard Bureau had hoped to commission as part of its Heritage Painting Series.

The report accompanying the Senate defense bill argued the funds "should be realigned to support higher priority readiness requirements." For McCain, a long and frequent critic of earmarks and wasteful government spending, a picture might've been worth a thousand words, but apparently not $62,000.

"That's definitely something that catches Chairman McCain's eye, and he does not look very fondly upon that kind of thing," said Dustin Walker, a committee spokesman. Walker said that after the committee found the eye-popping price tag, McCain directed staff "to make sure that the funding for that would not be found in our bill." 

The House bill (HR 1735), meanwhile, cut just over $1.4 million from the program, but did not include report language detailing what was cut or why the reduction was made. The House Armed Services Committee did not have an immediate comment on the details of the cut.

While the quarter million dollar cost of the paintings is a mere fraction of a percent of the more than half a trillion dollar defense budget proposed for the coming fiscal year, the program — as well as other line items lawmakers and government watchdogs have highlighted as wasteful — raises questions about the allocation of resources in a cycle where military leaders have argued any funding level under the president's budget would require a revision of national security strategy. 

"How many hearings have we seen about readiness challenges?" asked Mandy Smithberger, director of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.

"It really undermines the credibility for increasing military spending when you have officer portraits ... a broken acquisition system and you can't pass an audit," Smithberger added.

Essentially begun to commemorate great moments in the history of the Guard and its militia forerunners, the program has commissioned 84 paintings since 1962, running the gamut from the raising of troops to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 to the Guard mobilization in response to Hurricane Katrina.

"National Guard Heritage Paintings are commissioned for command information purposes, and depict historic moments in National Guard history," Guard spokesman Kurt M. Rauschenberg told CQ Roll Call in an email. "The program supports a print service which makes prints of paintings available to units, service members, and the general public, and which are also used to support an NGB service award program."

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, called the paintings "a little over the top," and questioned their usefulness, particularly with the services "crying poor" over tight sequestration budget caps.

"It's a question of how many taxpayers are going to enjoy this or learn from this," Ellis said. "You know, how many people are actually ever going to see the painting."

Rauschenberg said the current cost estimate is based on a $40,000 price tag in fiscal 2011. The estimate, he said, includes the physical painting, agency fees, framing and graphic design services for printing. Prints are available to order for free online, with restrictions on order quantity.

The request for five total paintings is noted in the Army National Guard's fiscal 2016 budget justification for operations and maintenance as part of a request for an additional $671,000 for National Guard Bureau public affairs. The justification, however, does not itemize the $62,500 price tag for each painting, which may have only been revealed because Senate Armed Services chose to highlight the cost in its report.

Needles in a Budget Haystack

The Pentagon's budget has long been a target for government watchdogs and lawmakers who complain of wasteful and duplicative federal programs and spending.

"It's a much bigger haystack to stick these little needles," Ellis said of the defense budget.

The National Guard found itself in hot water earlier last month for reportedly paying the National Football League millions of dollars to pay tribute to military service members. 

McCain took aim at an array of federal spending in his government waste book released by his office in May, including $49 million in spending by the Guard for professional sports advertising, particularly NASCAR. The Senate's defense authorization bill includes limits on funding for several big ticket weapons systems that have drawn the Arizona Republican's ire of late, including the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier and the Littoral Combat Ship.

Smithberger called the historical painting program a potential "canary in the coal mine," pointing to media reports in 2008 that unearthed Air Force efforts to use counterterrorism funds for so-called "comfort capsules" to accommodate senior officers on military planes.

Sean Kennedy, the director of research for Citizens Against Government Waste, said items such as the paintings showed the need for the Pentagon to achieve auditability.

"Who knows how many more projects might exist were this agency to be audited. It's the only federal agency that hasn't been," Kennedy said.

Citizens Against Government Waste highlighted tens of millions in defense spending it deemed wasteful in its 2015 "Pig Book," including renewable energy research, upgrades to the M1 Abrams tank, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education programs and disease research performed by the Defense Health Program. 

Kennedy contended the significance of the Guard's painting program was not so much its cost, but the implication for the wider defense budget.

"Those are programs that don't have a very big cost but they're sort of emblematic of a larger problem," Kennedy said. "It's great to address them, but there are larger problems at the Department of Defense for sure."

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