WASHINGTON — Being a former U.S. president brings the ability to pull down millions in speaking fees and book deals.

And yet American taxpayers are still on the hook for providing those individuals with an annual pension, as well as picking up the tab for office furniture, travel expenses, staff salaries and communications costs.

“They can make in an hour what our taxpayers are generously subsidizing them, so that’s completely unnecessary,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, told The World-Herald.

Ernst is taking another shot at trimming what former presidents are entitled to on the public’s dime with legislation that she unveiled last week.

A recent Congressional Research Service report found that in 2015 the total bill for four living former presidents was more than $3.2 million.

Those ranged from the $430,000 allocated for Jimmy Carter to about $1.1 million for George W. Bush.

As a relatively young man, Barack Obama has a potentially lengthy retirement before him. With his addition to the list of those receiving benefits, the total amount spent is expected to rise to nearly $3.9 million this fiscal year.

Ernst’s bill does not curtail the Secret Service protection and security for former presidents. It would set their annual pension at $200,000 and cap the currently unlimited allowances for office space, staff, cellphones, etc., at a total of $500,000. That cap would be reduced over time, to $250,000.

Her legislation also would reduce the allowance dollar-for-dollar by whatever the former president makes over $400,000.

“Today we have these presidents that are getting these great speaking engagements, they’re getting book deals,” she said. “They don’t need the same type of support that bygone eras did.”

Indeed, before 1958, presidents received no pension or other financial assistance from the federal government despite examples of one-time commanders in chief struggling to make ends meet.

Ulysses S. Grant’s finances, for example, were in such bad shape after leaving the White House that creditors were taking his personal belongings. He wrote his much-heralded memoir in part out of a need to provide for his family, noted Bruce Schulman, a professor of history at Boston University.

In fact, Grant in some ways kicked off the idea of a robust post-presidency. The duties and prominence of former presidents expanded further in the post-World War II era — but not necessarily the funding to support that role.

“Through most of the 19th and into the early 20th century, being president of the United States was not a particularly lucrative endeavor, and many people who were ex-presidents lived pretty modest lifestyles after that,” Schulman said. “Eisenhower had his Army pension to rely on. Truman did not. The Trumans were not very well-off.”

Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in order to “maintain the dignity” of the office by providing them with assistance in part because of concerns Harry Truman expressed about expenses that came with having held the office. Those included $30,000 a year to reply to mail and speaking requests.

The template for the modern post-presidency was really outlined by Jimmy Carter, who left office as a relatively young man and threw himself into a variety of international and philanthropic activities, Schulman said.

Along with that has come greater opportunities to cash in.

“Presidents have a lot more opportunity for making money than they used to,” Schulman said.

Annual GSA allowance for former presidents, fiscal year 2015

Source: Data provided to CRS by the Office of the Budget, General Services Administration

Allowance type Jimmy Carter George H. W. Bush Bill Clinton George W. Bush Nancy Reagan Total
Personnel compensation $0 $96,000 $96,000 $96,000 $0 $288,000
Personnel benefits $0 $65,000 $119,000 $102,000 $0 $286,000
Pension $205,000 $205,000 $218,000 $214,000 $0 $842,000
Travel $0 $56,000 $0 $10,000 $0 $66,000
Office space $112,000 $207,000 $429,000 $434,000 $0 $1,182,000
Communications $15,000 $60,000 $11,000 $80,000 $6,000 $172,000
Printing $1,000 $10,000 $9,000 $20,000 $0 $40,000
Other services $96,000 $62,000 $31,000 $64,000 $0 $253,000
Supplies/materials $1,000 $10,000 $3,000 $28,000 $0 $42,000
Equipment $0 $23,000 $8,000 $50,000 $0 $81,000
Totals $430,000 $794,000 $924,000 $1,098,000 $6,000 $3,252,000

The expectation of former presidents today is that they will have significant foundations and presidential libraries, said Matt Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

In fact, he said much of the expenses incurred by former presidents are actually covered by those foundations and other private sources and not taxpayers.

He suggested Ernst’s legislation is primarily symbolic given that the money involved is such a small part of the budget. He said it also misses the point that the public does have an interest in ensuring that former presidents can continue their engagement in public life.

“There is an argument that former presidents remain, whether they like it or not, public figures,” Dallek said. “And that they carry in some ways the burdens of the office — the benefits and perks of the office, but also the burdens of the office after they leave.”

Still, Ernst said, “It seems in today’s modern age that being president provides very lucrative deals on the back end.”

The fee for Obama to speak at one conference was reportedly $400,000. Late in his presidency, George W. Bush told a journalist from GQ that he planned to give paid speeches “to replenish the ol’ coffers” after he left office, and noted that his father, a one-term president, was making more than $50,000 to $75,000 per speech.

Bill and Hillary Clinton made an eye-popping $240 million in the 15 years after they left the White House, much of that coming from paid speeches.

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a billionaire real estate developer and reality TV star who presumably will return to those pursuits after his time at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Ernst said she feels good about the prospects of the legislation. After all, it sailed through Congress in the previous session — only to be vetoed by Obama.

Obama said he agreed with the goal of the legislation but raised concerns about unintended consequences that could result in the General Services Administration immediately terminating office employees and removing furniture from offices.

Those potential disruptions could even affect the security of former presidents, he said.

Ernst said the new version of her legislation should address all of those concerns. The gradual reduction, for example, should avoid any kind of “cliff effect” that would result in immediate terminations.

Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., has introduced companion legislation in the House.

The annual expenditures of a few million dollars are minuscule in the scheme of a multitrillion-dollar federal budget.

But Ernst said Iowans consider millions of dollars to be significant and said it’s about the principle of looking for unnecessary spending.

“You have to start somewhere, and this is a great place to start,” Ernst said.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Reporter - Politics/Washington D.C.

Joseph Morton is The World-Herald Washington Bureau Chief. Morton joined The World-Herald in 1999 and has been reporting from Washington for the newspaper since 2006. Follow him on Twitter @MortonOWH. Email:joseph.morton@owh.com

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.