In the era of the gig economy, it seems like just about everyone is seeking extra income through a side job. Former presidents, who receive an annual six-figure government pension plus additional benefits, have a much easier time with this than the average citizen.
According to a recent article in Bloomberg, former President Barack Obama has been giving speeches at events sponsored by Wall Street banks and charging $400,000 per engagement. Mr. and Mrs. Obama also reportedly signed a $65 million deal for a set of memoirs — a record amount among ex-presidents and their spouses. Not that there's anything wrong with this — that's the free market at work. But it does raise questions about the appropriateness of the expensive taxpayer-funded perks provided to wealthy former presidents. Newly-introduced legislation would reform their benefits and save taxpayers money.
Upon leaving office, former presidents are entitled to an annual pension of $207,800, equal to the salary of a Cabinet secretary. They are also provided healthcare benefits, travel reimbursements, and an allowance for office space, supplies, and staff. The benefits were originally established in 1958 to "maintain the dignity" of the office of president, as former President Harry Truman ran into financial problems after his term in the White House.
Nobody would want to see our former chief executives struggling, but that is hardly the case today. Following Truman, all former presidents have been millionaires. And in the modern era, they have ample opportunities such as book deals, paid speeches, and appointments to corporate boards to reap substantial payments to support themselves.
The total costs per year add up: nearly $65 million since 2000 for Presidents Ford through Obama. President Bill Clinton has been the most expensive ex-president. He has received $19 million in perks since leaving office, driven up by the $511,000 rental cost for his New York City office space. Jimmy Carter has been the most frugal former president, receiving an average of $565,000 per year.
The budget in fiscal 2017 for former presidents totaled $3.6 million: around $726,000 per president. Earlier in the year, the General Services Administration requested $4.7 million for 2018, a 19 percent increase to accommodate Obama's first full year out of office and his office space in Washington, D.C., costing $536,000.
The Presidential Allowance Modernization Act of 2017 would limit the pension a president could receive to $200,000 annually, with the amount being indexed to inflation. It would also limit the annual allowance for office space and other expenses to $500,000 for the first five years, reduced to $350,000 for the next five years, and down to $250,000 per year afterwards. The act would reduce this allowance dollar for dollar by the amount that a president's adjusted gross income exceeds $400,000. The bill would leave intact current healthcare benefits and Secret Service protection (costs for which are classified.)
This is a continuation of an ongoing effort. Last year, similar legislation authored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, was passed by Congress, but ultimately vetoed by Obama, the next man in line to receive the perks. He issued a statement that, "This bill as written would immediately terminate salaries and all benefits to staffers carrying out the official duties of former presidents."
That version of the bill limited the allowance for each president to $200,000. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 2016 bill would have saved $10 million over the next five years. An analysis is unavailable for the newer version, but the estimate is expected to be similar.
As President Trump continues to donate the entirety of his $400,000 presidential salary to various causes, there's a good chance that this time around, the legislation will be signed into law if it reaches the Oval Office.
In the grand scheme of the $4 trillion federal budget and the trillions in long-term debt, the savings from this reform represent a relatively small line-item. But in this era of chronic overspending, small line-items collectively add up to a substantial amount. The average American's retirement income only amounts to $18,000 annually. Many workers are forced to postpone retirement to bolster their savings or supplement their earnings through side gigs.
They should not be asked to shoulder the costs for what is essentially a welfare program for wealthy ex-presidents. As elder statesmen, our former heads of state should put taxpayers first.
Demian Brady is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is director of research at the National Taxpayers Union.
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