There's a lot to be admired about the new House History website. If you're into this sort of thing, the site has biographies of every member in the chamber's history, online exhibits, documentaries, and an index of Capitol art. The page serves as an online museum, without lines or screaming kids.
But like a great many museums, a search through its collection reveals a mystery. For the sake of amusement, let's call it "The Case of the Missing Pelosi."
For every speaker of the House, there is a corresponding oil painting. Henry Clay, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, and John Boehner all have portraits of themselves immortalized on canvas. They're large and lifelike, and are filled with totems of the speakers' careers. There's only one missing, and it's Nancy Pelosi. Granted, the site displays a photograph of the former speaker. But that's just not the same, right?
As an inquiry to the House curator's office reveals, House committees can set up portrait-fund commissions (with approval from the House Fine Arts Board) to solicit donations for paintings of committee chairs. We the people don't pay for these portraits; interest groups and private donors do. For instance, according to CQ Roll Call, in 2008 Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis raised $24,300 for a representation of his likeness.
Unlike the others, the portrait of Boehner on the House history website is not an official speaker's portrait. It was commissioned for him while he was chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Despite serving in many key roles in the House, Nancy Pelosi never chaired a committee. But that doesn't mean she'll never get a portrait. The House does have a process in place for acquiring and commissioning portraits of former speakers (taxpayers pay for these). According to House precedent:
In 1910 a resolution was adopted authorizing the Committee on the Library to provide for the painting of portraits of the 19 former speakers of whom the House possessed no creditable likeness, and since that time provision had been made in the appropriate supply bill for the painting of the portrait of each speaker in the course of the term of his incumbency. Such portraits are hung without ceremony, usually at the close of the speaker's term of office (emphasis added).
Since 2003, the office of the House Clerk formalized the procedure further, making a bureaucratically complicated process for commissioning speaker's portraits (it involves taking in public quotes and proposals, and is overseen by the House Fine Arts Board). As expected, it's a process that doesn't happen quickly. Also, according to a House aide familiar with the speaker portrait process, "official portraits of speakers are traditionally unveiled after a speaker has ended his or her service in the House of Representatives."
Speaker Hastert's painting was unveiled two years after he left Congress. According to The Hill, it took a year for the artist to draft and paint. So it will probably be some time before we see a portrait of Pelosi.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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