While there had been talk of creating a presidential pension for some time, the impetus for passing it in 1958 was President Harry Truman’s financial struggles after he left office. In his final year in office, President Truman earned $100,000. The next year his income dropped to $34,000, and then to $13,000 the year after that. That is a precipitous drop in annual income. However, adjusted for inflation, $13,000 would be roughly equal to $114,000 today, putting Truman in the top 10 percent of earners of his day. He certainly wasn’t destitute. To his credit, Truman had numerous offers for executive positions and membership on boards of directors, but he turned them down because he didn’t want to profit from the office of the presidency after his term was over. Instead, he focused on building his presidential library, and in 1953 he sold his memoirs for what amounts to $4 million in today’s dollars.
There are four living ex-presidents today, each participating in the Former Presidents Act pension and expense reimbursement program. None of those ex-presidents is in dire financial straits. All were wealthy before assuming office, and all have remained so after leaving the White House. President Clinton, for example, made over $100 million between 2000 and 2007. Yet all former presidents ask for and are given their full $200,000 pension each year. And that’s not all. Taxpayers also pick up the bill for travel, rent, telephone, postage, and various other expenses incurred by ex-presidents, amounting to about $3.5 million a year. In all, since 2000 taxpayers have spent $60 million (adjusted for inflation) on presidential pensions.
Public office should be public service. While there are some expenses presidents incur after they leave office that are unavoidable and a direct result of their public service, why should taxpayers be footing the expensive rent bills of multimillionaires? Especially when those multimillionaires left taxpayers with a $17 trillion debt while they were in office?
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