Legitimate questions exists as to whether a president, or any politician, should receive a publicly funded pension if he or she chooses to cash in by making large sums on, say, the speaking circuit.
Any change in the administration of political pensions, however, should be undertaken on principle rather than partisanship.
After news reports that President Barack Obama accepted a speaking invitation in exchange for $400,000, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz suggested on social media that the move might prompt Congress to go after the former-President’s pension.
That would be a mistake.
To be clear, means-testing political pensions would do much to help restore trust in Washington’s political class. Yet, Congress should only undertake such an effort in a deliberative, bi-partisan manner.
The Former President’s Act (FPA), which provided the post-presidency pensions and other perks, was passed largely in reaction to Harry Truman’s meager financial circumstances.
When Truman left office his only income was a modest Army pension.
Rather than “cash-in” on the presidency, Truman jettisoned numerous commercial opportunities. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable,” Truman wrote, “that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency.”
Although he did sell the rights to his memoirs, he largely stayed true to this principle.
In recent decades, this kind of high-minded moral stance has become increasingly passé.
Not long after Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, for example, he embarked on a speaking tour of Japan, for which he was paid a staggering sum of $2 million. This sparked a great deal of outrage, and the Los Angeles Times stated that he was “inappropriately cashing in on his eight-year presidency.”
Since then, former presidents of both parties have earned a great deal of money on the post-presidential circuit. Back when it was Reagan who was getting rich, it was the Democrats who were furious. Today, as former President Obama comes under fire for accepting a $400,000 speaking honorarium, it is the Republicans who are beside themselves.
Publicly funded pensions will always appear to be gratuitous excesses as long as politicians are out making six figures for speeches. Last year, President Obama vetoed a bi-partisan bill called The Presidential Allowance Modernization Act of 2016, which aimed to curb the presidential pensions. In an effort to save tax payer dollars and restore trust in Washington, it may be worth proposing this legislation again during a rare partisan lull.
It may also be time to reconsider how all federal political pensions are administered — perhaps making such pensions taxable at higher rates based on annual income levels.
Former presidents and politicians who have served honorably deserve to live in dignity, but they do not deserve to profit at the expense of taxpayers.
We recognize that it is next to impossible to remove partisan politics from this discussion, or indeed any other discussion in Washington, but it’s important to note that on this issue, neither party holds any moral high ground and both parties must work together to restore trust and to reemphasize the importance that politics should be about public service not financial profits.