Our Founding Fathers had a unique view of public service, one that would be looked upon as naïve in the 21st century. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison viewed the presidency as their public duty, one from which they retired and went back into their private lives — a tradition that continued well into the 20th century. In fact, in Jefferson’s case, he did not include mention of his presidency on his tombstone, preferring instead to note as his proudest legacy his stewardship of his beloved University of Virginia.
Federal service, whether in the Congress or the White House, was supposed to consist of service in the public — not the private — good. This was to be in explicit contrast to the trappings of elitism and royalty that were at the heart of the European monarchial system, against which the American colonies rebelled.
How times have changed.
Today, serving as the nation’s chief executive, a post once viewed as a sacred institution, has turned into a “cash cow,” with occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue now morphing seamlessly from the “imperial presidency” to the “imperial ex-presidency.”
On Wednesday, The Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas reminded us that modern-day former presidents who transition from public to “private” life remain firmly tethered to the public trough, shamelessly milking the public for massive expenses as “ex-presidents.” For example, George W. Bush — whose eight years in office were among the most expensive ever — will be granted $1.3 million from taxpayers this year to pay for various expenses, including an $85,000 phone bill.
While it is easy to pick on Bush, the fact is he is not alone. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, has requested a cool $1 million this year, which includes $442,000 for office space. These taxpayer funds, of course, are in addition to the millions of dollars these former commanders-in-chief earn by virtue of having been elected president in the first place.
Post-presidential life has turned into a lucrative business in and of itself. Former presidents are well-known for securing multimillion-dollar book deals and huge speaking fees. Needless to say, unlike many of their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors, they are not hurting for money.
So how did taxpayers come to subsidize ex-presidents? The answer lies in the “Former Presidents Act,” signed into law in 1958 by Dwight Eisenhower. The law grants former presidents various benefits, including an annual pension — currently $191,300 — health insurance benefits, a fully paid office staff and lifetime Secret Service protection (though a law change limits Bush’s protection to 10 years after his term ends). Like other federal “entitlement programs,” this one has continued to grow over time; and its beneficiaries have shown no compunction in demanding as many taxpayer dollars as they can.
Thankfully, however, such largely unnecessary benefits are receiving at least some scrutiny by members of Congress. For example, a bipartisan trio of lawmakers — Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Jason Altmire (D-PA) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) — are trying to rein in this excess of the imperial ex-presidency. The vehicle for their reform effort is H.R. 4093, the “Presidential Allowance and Modernization Act,” a bill that would limit funding for ex-presidents who earn over $400,000 a year.
It is unlikely this legislation will receive favorable action in either the House or the Senate this year, but voters, especially tea partiers whose fundamental platform seeks to rein in profligate federal spending, should demand support for the legislation — including seeking to have Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, pledge to support it if elected.
Such a move would make our Founding Fathers proud at a time when the imperial presidency has done little to foster such sentiment.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He provides regular commentary to Daily Caller readers.