If Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or either of the presidents Bush were running for office today, they’d be inveighing against the government’s wasteful spending on former presidents. But now they are the former presidents, and they can help curb the waste.
Though it can be easy to overlook in a $3.6 trillion federal budget, taxpayers shell out hefty sums each year to cover the expenses of the nation’s four living former presidents. In 2010, ABC News recently reported, those payments included $80,000 for George W. Bush’s phone service, $579,000 for Bill Clinton’s office rent, and $15,000 for Jimmy Carter’s postage. All told, Americans spent more than $3 million for the former presidents’ expenses, with the largest payouts going to the younger Bush ($1,306,000) and Clinton ($1,088,000).
There was a time when retired presidents received no taxpayer-funded benefits at all, a situation that was changed after Harry and Bess Truman needed a bank loan to tide them over for the transition back to private life after leaving the White House in 1953. By law, former presidents now receive an annual pension of nearly $200,000; it is payable as soon as they depart the White House, regardless of age. They are also granted lavish staff, office, and travel allowances. All that is in addition to round-the-clock Secret Service protection for themselves and their families.
But presidents no longer spend their post-White House years in the straitened circumstances the Trumans faced. Between speaking fees, book royalties, and other opportunities to make money, being an ex-president is highly lucrative. Last year, Clinton collected more than $10 million in speaking fees alone; George W. Bush made $15 million. Carter, the least wealthy ex-president, enjoys a net worth of $7 million — and that’s just a fraction of what Clinton is worth. Should taxpayers really be expected to cover any and all expenses of such wealthy individuals?
Congress needs to rein in the cost of presidential retirements. US Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah suggests ending expense reimbursements for any ex-president who earns more than $400,000 a year. He has introduced legislation limiting presidents to a $200,000 annual pension and $200,000 in annual expenses. (Their security and health care would still be covered for life). Chaffetz’s proposed cuts are too drastic, given the huge amount of phone and mail traffic directed toward former heads of state. But there need to be far greater limits, especially for those ex-chiefs who rake in millions of dollars a year.