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Why the White House spends $277,000 on calligraphers
Republicans, howling over President Obama's curtailment of White House tours, have some personnel-management advice when it comes to fancy handwriting experts
 
For formal White House engagements, like when Queen Elizabeth comes to visit, a calligrapher is on hand to design the invitations.
For formal White House engagements, like when Queen Elizabeth comes to visit, a calligrapher is on hand to design the invitations. CC BY: The White House

Lots of Republicans in Washington believe that the Obama administration is trying to use what spending discretion it has over the $85 billion in across-the-board sequestration cuts to fulfill its dire warnings about the pain and inconvenience Americans will feel if Washington doesn't do something. So when the White House announced that, due to the sequester, it was suspending all public tours of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the umbrage was pretty thick.

"The president is trying to make it tough on members of Congress," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told CNBC. "It's just silly. I want to know who is being laid off at the White House. The Capitol is open for tours."

Indeed, cutting off White House tours is a "ham-handed" way to inflict pain on the public, says Allahpundit at Hot Air, and "it's an invitation to his critics to riff on what the executive branch could do without in lieu of torpedoing tours for the public."

Plenty of conservatives are doing just that. At The Weekly Standard, Daniel Halper singled out the White House calligraphy team. Chief Calligrapher Patricia A. Blair has an annual salary of $96,725; her two deputies earn $94,372 and $85,953 a year. "In all, the White House appears to employ 3 calligraphers for a yearly total of $277,050," says Halper. "Despite sequestration, there's been no announcement of the White House scaling back on calligraphers." (Watch a C-SPAN video on what the White House calligrapher does.)

Thus began "calligraphy-gate," says James Joyner at Outside the Beltway. The scandal is apparently that "the White House employs calligraphers. And pays them money!" It may seem "a little silly that we're paying people good money to do fancy handwriting while threatening to furlough people doing real jobs," but it's worth remembering that "the White House is, after all, home to the head of state of the most powerful nation on earth." Hiring three people to hand-write all the invitations for state dinners and other ceremonial functions is hardly shocking, and it's not like Blair is one of Obama's "Chicago cronies" — she's held her position since at least the Bush administration. As for the salaries:

Presumably, these individuals are members of the U.S. civil service. The White House is subject to the locality pay for the Washington-Baltimore area and pay is standardized. So, that means Blair and [deputy Richard] Muffler are either very senior GS-12s or a junior GS-13s. [Deputy Debra] Brown is likely a mid-level GS-12.... Is that too much to pay people to do fancy handwriting? Maybe. It's more than a lot of learned professionals make, even in the DC area. Then again, one imagines the White House has rather high standards and these three individuals are among the best calligraphers in the country. I haven't a clue what the market is in that industry, but mid-grade civil service pay doesn't strike me as inordinate. [Outside the Beltway]

"Like all Americans, I want White House invitations and name cards to look as first-class as possible," says Nick Gillespie at Reason. "But shelling out a quarter of a million bucks a year" on three calligraphers "undercuts the idea that President Obama thinks there's a spending problem for sure." Like many responsible taxpayers, "I look forward to the day when the country is no longer putting 40 percent of its annual outlays on a credit card."

Of course, some people believe this is much ado about nothing. Even "if you fired all the calligraphers and pocketed their salaries, that would give you approximately one one-millionth of the $28.7 billion in cuts this year to domestic discretionary programs from the sequester," says Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog. And if Obama ever "dared to tinker with this century-old process," you can take it to the bank that conservatives "would be railing about disrespect for the office."

Conservatives also have to decide: Is $90,000 an outrageous salary, or is it on the low end of a middle class that includes people who make $400,000? says John Cole at Balloon Juice. Besides, why trash calligraphers? As anyone who's ever been to a wedding or funeral knows, they have "a highly specialized skill set" that "people obviously see value in." And calligraphers never tanked the economy like millionaire bankers, or took us to war. If we're talking about government waste, "I'd much rather hire an army of calligraphers and artists to make pretty things across America over dumping pallets of unmarked bills on Iraq."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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