Spratt portrait event offered rare view of Congress

The 24-hour news cycle, combined with endless political campaigning, has soured many Americans on government, especially Congress. Recently, however, I was privileged to witness an event in the U.S. House Budget Committee room in the Cannon Office Building in Washington, D.C., that revealed a different side of Congress and which gave me a fleeting glimpse of a collegiality often missing from today’s public discourse.

Former Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who represented the 5th District, which includes York, Chester and Lancaster counties, was joined by members of Congress from both parties, former staff members, friends, and family for the unveiling of his portrait. The painting, paid for by private donors (no public funds were involved), joins portraits of other former Budget Committee chairmen that hang in the committee’s hearing room, where it will long serve as a reminder to future generations of what is good, decent, gentle and honorable about government service. Along with others from York County, I attended the event to recognize a good friend who had served his country long and well.

What I did not expect was a renewal of my faith in what can be accomplished by people of good will working together in harmony without being unduly constrained by partisan considerations.

As the crowd mingled prior to the ceremony, I met a young man and asked him what brought him that day. He said he had worked as an intern in the congressman’s office in the late 1980s and that Spratt inspired him to pursue a life of public service. He currently runs a non-profit corporation that helps settle refugees. Our exchange caused me to wonder how many lives have been touched in a positive way by the man we were there to honor.

Speakers at the brief but touching ceremony included both Democrats and Republicans. Without exception, they described Spratt as a gentleman, who treated everyone with fairness and respect.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Md., current chairman of the House Budget Committee, served as master of ceremonies and described Spratt as a gentleman who always demonstrated “the spirit of collegiality, which is so often lacking” in Congress. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who had not seen the portrait before it was unveiled, expressed the hope that the artist “captured the depth and soul and integrity” of his subject.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., described Spratt’s love for South Carolina because of her people and said that he had “never met anyone better or more decent.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “On a committee about numbers, for John it was always about values.”

Although one would expect Democrats to say good things of their fellow Democratic colleague, perhaps the highest praise came from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who succeeded Spratt as chairman of the Budget Committee. Ryan said he appreciated his colleague’s openness and fairness.

Ryan reminded the gathering that Spratt was a principal architect of the landmark 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement. Ryan said he wished that he could claim such an accomplishment. When the Democrats took back the House in 2006, Ryan told people that while he didn’t like being in the minority, “at least my chairman is John Spratt.”

Ryan also said he appreciated the way Spratt let every member of the committee have a say, Republicans and Democrats alike. “If I ever get the chance to hold the gavel,” Ryan said, “that is the kind of chair that I want to be.”

Another former colleague, John Yarmuth, D-Ky, quoted a mantra of Spratt’s: “Everything needs to be on the table, and everybody needs to be at the table.”

The artist who created the portrait unveiled that day, Chas Fagan of Charlotte, previously painted First Lady Barbara Bush for the White House. A sculptor as well as painter, Fagan also created three-dimensional representations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Fagan described how he attempted to tell a story with Chairman Spratt’s portrait by including the image of John holding a copy of the Balanced Budget Agreement and by including the curve of a roll top desk from the Spratt home in York. The latter image, according to Fagan, represents his subject’s old-fashioned work ethic and the diligence that characterized his tenure as chairman of the Budget Committee.

Before the portrait was unveiled, Spratt introduced his five grandchildren. As they lined up to help unveil his portrait, he shared with them some grandfatherly wisdom: “The highest and best calling is government service.”

Perhaps too few of us would feel comfortable making such a statement in 2015, but John Spratt’s life proves it to be so.

McDow, a native of Rock Hill and retired attorney, is a longtime friend of Congressman Spratt and his wife, Jane.