Presidential cap: The nation should limit what it spends on ex-chiefs

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A new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concludes that our four former presidents cost the country $3.7 million a year. That's not a lot of money within a $2.4 trillion federal budget. But it's a lot of money when you consider that all of the ex-presidents are millionaires, and then some.

Former President Bill Clinton's net worth reportedly is in the range of $80 million. Last year, Mr. Clinton made more than $13.4 million delivering speeches. That comes out to $248,777 per speech, which is a good fee even if you are a great speechmaker.

Funding for ex-presidents dates back to 1958, when Congress created the Former Presidents Act. At that time, Harry Truman had become virtually destitute because he refused to join corporate boards or become a TV pitchman, feeling that would demean the presidency.

No one then dreamed that one day, a former president would get millions for a book deal or $175,000 from the America Kuwait Foundation for a speech. Former presidents now can cash in -- and do.

A partial exception is ex-President Jimmy Carter, who makes a living from books and lectures. But he seems to attract or accept smaller fees, and gives some of that money to the Carter Center, which actually does things other than glorifying Mr. Carter.

Under the Former Presidents Act, previous inhabitants of the Oval Office get a pension of about $200,000 a year, plus $96,000 for a small office staff. Taxpayers also pick up the tab for travel, office space and postage -- and they can pile up.

Mr. Clinton's 8,300-square-foot office cost taxpayers nearly $450,000 last year. George W. Bush spent $85,000 on telephone charges. The government spent a total of $1.3 million on Mr. Bush last year and roughly $1 million for Mr. Clinton. That's a lot of Forever stamps.

None of this includes the cost of Secret Service protection, which is for life, as it should be. Protecting the safety of ex-presidents is a cost the government should bear.

But a salary should not apply unless they give their speeches for free and are, in essence, still full-time public servants, as Mr. Truman and John Adams saw themselves after they left office. If they are in business, profiting handsomely from their formerness, the public ought not to subsidize those businesses.

Last year, a bill before Congress sensibly proposed a cap on ex-presidents' costs -- a $200,000 pension, and another $200,000 that they could use at their discretion. The bill never got out of committee. Would Harry Truman have accepted $1 million a year from a Treasury that is so deep in red ink?

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