WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton’s 8,300-square-foot Harlem office near the Apollo Theater costs taxpayers nearly $450,000. George W. Bush spends $85,000 on telephone fees, and another $60,000 on travel. Jimmy Carter sends $15,000 worth of postage — all on the government’s dime.
The most exclusive club in the world has a similarly exclusive price tag — nearly $3.7 million, according to a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. That’s how much the federal government spent last year on the four living ex-presidents and one presidential widow.
Topping the list in 2012 was George W. Bush, who got just over $1.3 million last year.
Under the Former Presidents Act, previous inhabitants of the Oval Office are given an annual pension equivalent to a Cabinet secretary’s salary — about $200,000 last year, plus $96,000 a year for a small office staff. Taxpayers also pick up the tab for other items like staff benefits, travel, office space and postage.
The $3.7 million taxpayers shelled out in 2012 is about $200,000 less than in 2011, and the sum in 2010 was even higher. It’s a drop in the bucket compared with the trillions the federal government spends each year.
Still, with ex-presidents able to command eye-popping sums for books, speaking engagements and the like in their post-White House years, the report raises questions about whether the U.S. should provide such generous subsidies at a time when spending cuts and the deficit are forcing lawmakers and federal agencies to seek ways to cut back.
Departing presidents also get extra help in the first years after they leave office, one reason that Bush’s costs were higher than other living ex-presidents. The most recent ex-president to leave the White House, Bush was granted almost $400,000 for 8,000 square feet of office space in Dallas, plus $85,000 in telephone costs. Another $60,000 went to travel costs.
Clinton came in second at just under $1 million last year, followed by President George H.W. Bush at nearly $850,000. Clinton spent the most government money on office space: $442,000 for his Harlem digs.
Costs for Carter, the only other living former president, came in at about $500,000.
Widows of former presidents are entitled to a pension of $20,000, but Nancy Reagan, the wife of former President Ronald Reagan, waived her pension last year. The former first lady did accept $14,000 in postage.
The cost totals for ex-presidents don’t include what the Secret Service spends protecting them, their spouses and children. Those costs are part of a separate budget that isn’t made public.
Funding for ex-presidents dates back to 1958, when Congress created the Former Presidents Act largely in response to President Harry Truman’s post-White House financial woes, the Congressional Research Service said. The goal was to maintain the dignity of the presidency and help with ongoing costs associated with being a former president, such as responding to correspondence and scheduling requests.
These days, a former president’s income from speaking and writing can be substantial, and ex-presidents also have robust presidential centers and foundations that accept donations and facilitate many of their post-presidential activities.
Noting that none of the living ex-presidents are poor, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced a bill last year that would limit costs to a $200,000 pension, plus another $200,000 that ex-presidents could use at their discretion. And for every dollar that an ex-president earns in excess of $400,000, his annual allowance would be reduced by the same amount. The bill died in committee.
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