Care, comfort of ex-presidents will cost taxpayers more than $20 million in '93

November 28, 1992|By Martin Merzer | Martin Merzer,House Appropriations Committee/MIAMI HERALD NEWS GRAPHICKnight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Weep not for George Bush.

Like all former presidents -- and we sure have a lot of them these days -- Mr. Bush will be able to preserve much of the lifestyle to which he has grown accustomed. Courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

More than $20 million will be spent next year on the care and comfort of Mr. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford and Richard M. Nixon, making them the most expensive wards of the state in history.

Even Lady Bird Johnson still receives a modest pension and some other benefits. (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis lost her Secret Service protection and her $20,000 presidential widow's pension when she remarried.)

"It's a mess," said Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr., an Indiana Democrat and a longtime critic of what he calls "these slush funds."

His contention: "When you go out of office, you ought not to go right back into office. We're getting ripped off royally."

You name it, you're probably paying for it.

For the ex-presidents: an annual pension of $143,800. Medical care. Costly Secret Service protection. Travel expenses. An office and a staff. Telephone, stationery, magazine subscriptions, even plant watering and golf cart repair.

For Lady Bird Johnson, who last lived in the White House a quarter-century ago: a $20,000 annual pension, Secret Service vigilance and about $2,700 in free postage.

And all of it for the rest of their lives.

Many in Congress and elsewhere think this has gone far enough. Critics wish no ill on the prestigious recipients. They just wish these folks would live a little cheaper -- or reach into their own pockets more often.

In each of the past 15 years, Mr. Jacobs has fought ever-larger appropriations for ex-presidents by introducing his "Former Presidents' Enough is Enough and Taxpayers Relief Amendment."

It always fails, though on a very close House vote this year.

"Mr. Chairman, our ex-presidents are beginning to pile up on us a little bit," Mr. Jacobs said plaintively on the House floor in July.

Yes, they are.

Longer life spans and shorter stays in the White House (of the five, only Mr. Reagan served two full terms) have yielded more former presidents than at any other time since 1861, assuming all remain alive through Bill Clinton's Jan. 20 inauguration.

The unstoppable momentum of government has yielded more and more benefits.

"Like most things in the federal government, once a program gets started, no matter how stupid it is, it is very difficult to get it stopped or changed," said David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a nonpartisan group that tries to corral government spending and taxes.

Representatives of the recipients said their status as former chief executives requires them to answer letters, respond to invitations and perform quasi-official duties for which they should be reimbursed, compensated and protected.

"President Carter certainly is in favor of containing those costs in any way possible, and I don't think it's unreasonable for a man who has served in the highest office of the land to receive a federal pension," said Carrie Harmon, a spokeswoman.

For most of the nation's history, departing presidents didn't get much more than a handshake on the way out the door. They simply returned to civilian life and took the same chances as everyone else.

That changed in 1958. Touched by the financial hardship of Harry S. Truman, who rejected most business opportunities as inappropriate for a former president, Congress initiated a presidential pension of $22,500.

But the federal money machine just kept churning: The pension was eventually pegged to the salary of Cabinet officers. It is also adjusted annually for inflation. And the long list of other benefits evolved.

Few object to the concept of presidential pensions, but many wonder about their size.

The current annual pension of $143,800 equals 72 percent of the president's salary of $200,000, a percentage many believe is too high. And the inflation clause, which also applies to congressional pensions, pushes presidential retirement payments ever higher.

Many critics note that former presidents have no shortage of income-producing opportunities these days.

Memoirs, speeches, corporate boards. All can be quite profitable.

Mr. Reagan, for instance, reportedly earned millions during a speaking tour of Japan shortly after he left the presidency. Mr. Ford is also no slouch in the personal appearance arena.

Mr. Bush, who is expected to join corporate boards and pursue other opportunities, is unlikely to have trouble making ends meet.

His holdings were worth $1.29 million last year, and his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, is valued at $2.19 million.

Most of the former presidents have access to other retirement funds.

For instance, Mr. Nixon, Mr. Ford and Mr. Bush receive congressional pensions. All are entitled to Social Security benefits.

Over the years, those presidential pensions pile up.

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