Something good might come from Bill Clinton's "homecoming" to Harlem if it focuses our attention on what taxpayers pay to subsidize all of our former presidents.
Congress began helping out ex-presidents in 1958 because Harry Truman was a relatively poor man and because it was thought proper to help ease the transition of former presidents back into private life. Prior to that, no formal federal pension or any other benefit was paid to ex-presidents.
Like most other government programs, the relative pittance ($25,000 annual pension) paid to Truman has grown to a $2.5 million entitlement for our five living ex-presidents. This includes an annual six-figure pension, plus money for secretarial help and Secret Service protection (the General Services Administra-tion has requested $3,376,000 for ex-presidents and staff in the Fiscal Year 2002 budget).
According to Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, there are few restrictions on how the money is spent, including for political activity. Istook has asked the Government Accounting Office to contact each ex-president and find out exactly where the money for office and staff goes. That report is due in September. Istook's office says he will then consider legislation that would place restrictions on what ex-presidents receive and how it can be used.
Recent ex-presidents get huge speaking fees and fat book contracts. According to the Los Angeles Times, former President Bush has been making $4 million annually on the global lecture circuit, delivering about 50 speeches a year. While there's nothing wrong with that, why couldn't he and the other ex-presidents cover more expenses with the money they earn? Matters related to their time in office might be paid for with tax money but the rest ought to come from their deep pockets.
Bill Clinton's advertised speaking fee is $100,000 a pop, yet taxpayers are paying $354,000 annual rent for his Harlem office. That's down from the $811,000 he wanted to spend on a ritzy office in a midtown neighborhood until the politics of it made him "see the light" and "come home" to Harlem.
Clinton also is likely to get a substantial advance on his memoirs, as did Mrs. Clinton, who was paid $8 million up front by Simon and Schuster (owned by CBS-Viacom, which has and will lobby for and against legislation on which Sen. Clinton will vote). The National Taxpayers Union (NTU) says the annual Clinton pension of $161,000 will cost taxpayers $7.29 million over Clinton's expected lifetime.
Why are the taxpayers subsidizing these multi-millionaires? Harry Truman they are not. Most modern ex-presidents had wealth before entering office and make plenty after leaving the presidency, so they're unlikely to ever face hard times.
The NTU recommendations for changing this seem reasonable. They would end the "pension charade" by substantially reducing the current $161,000 presidential pension and capping cost of living adjustments to the actual dollar amount, not the percentage amount, provided to Social Security recipients. Also, former presidents should not be eligible for retirement benefits until they reach retirement age.
Former presidents should be "term-limited." Even an extremely generous four-year limit on an ex-president's transition to private life, allowing for franking privileges and "goodwill traveling," could be handled through existing budgets.
Ex-presidents should pay for their own libraries, which is a recent phenomenon. Let private donors and universities pick up the expense. Currently, $43 million in taxpayer funds goes to presidential libraries and collections, according to the NTU.
It's a privilege and honor to serve as president, and ex-presidents are afforded great opportunities after leaving office. Burdening the taxpayers for the rest of their lives should not be among them.
Cal Thomas writes for Tribune Media Services.
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