If former President Barack Obama can pull down a $65 million book deal for his memoirs and thousands more in speaking engagements within weeks of leaving office, should taxpayers help provide for his retirement? What about former President Bill Clinton, who together with his wife Hillary, made $153 million from speeches alone before the 2016 campaign began in earnest?
Do Americans really owe their former leaders a pension, rent for office space, and other trappings as they’re busy making millions off their time in the White House?
That’s the question being asked by Wisconsin Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) with a new piece of legislation he introduced on Tuesday. The “Former Presidents Amendment Act on 2017” will greatly remove many of the taxpayer-funded goodies former living presidents get to enjoy.
In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act (FPA) as a response to the difficulties former presidents faced earning a living after their service had ended. The original Act passed was designed to provide a reasonable pension in order to ensure our past presidents didn’t fall into poverty. Over the years, however, the benefits have continued to grow while the need for them has significantly decreased.
In the modern era, former presidents now have a greater ability to earn a generous living through various means, such as featured speaker engagements and book deals. Despite this, the FPA has grown from simply providing a healthy pension to including a transition fund, health insurance, lifetime Secret Service protection, and additional funds for office space and a personal staff.
While some things, such as lifetime Secret Service protection, still make sense, others do not. Certain benefits, such as providing funding for office space and a personal staff, are not only unnecessary but an abuse of taxpayer dollars, especially considering these funds are often used for political activity.
The Former Presidents Amendment Act of 2017 is a common sense reform bill aimed at scaling back non-essential benefits while still maintaining crucial protections for our former presidents.
At the original passing of the Former Presidents Act in 1958, only two former U.S. presidents were still alive; Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman. It was the discovery that Truman was essentially broke within years of leaving the White House which led to its passage.
Currently, there are five living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) who are each eligible for an annual pension of $205,700 (as of 2016). Former First Ladies do not receive a pension, but they are eligible for $20,000 in annual “survivor’s benefits” as a widow. In addition to the pension, ex-presidents have taxpayers pay for office rent and a communications staff which handles mail, speaking requests, and other issues. They also are eligible for $1 million annually in travel expenses and never have to pay for postage.
While not budget-busting, the recent eye-popping incomes former presidents are making has raised bipartisan concern about whether taxpayers should be paying for offices with annual rents of nearly $500,000 (Clinton) and total allowances surpassing $1.3 million (George W. Bush). As Sensenbrenner himself said, benefits given to former presidents must be updated to reflect this new reality.
“The benefits currently allocated to former U.S. presidents are outdated and put an unnecessary financial burden on American taxpayers. The common sense reforms in the Former Presidents Amendment Act would update these benefits to reflect today’s society while still maintaining the necessary levels of protection our past presidents deserve.”