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Political Philosophy

Congress gives ex-presidents allowance for Life

The allowances—totaling $2.2 million a year for four ex-chief executives—go to pay for things such as rent, staff, postage
WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing a cutoff in his federal allowance for office expenses, former President Gerald Ford was preparing to shut down his $300,000-a-year operation when he got the word. Subsidies for ex-presidents, due to end this year, would be continued for life.

Congress quietly extended lifetime staff and office space allowances for former chief executives —about $1.6 million this year—by inserting the item into a huge spending bill last fall. This little-noticed provision essentially reversed Congress' 1993 decision to end the subsidies because of concerns about the costs.

Ford says he needs the money for staff to help with buckets of mail he still gets—over 1,000 pieces each week. He lobbied members of Congress in person and by phone to save the allotment. "You'd be surprised," Ford said in a telephone interview from his office in Rancho Mirage, Calif. "I get people wanting to know what my opinion is on legislation, many requests for autographs, pictures to be signed."

The government will pay $2.2 million in allowances (for Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter). The total includes a $151,800 pension for each ex-president; the rest is for office expenses including rent, staff salaries, travel costs and postage. The cost of Secret Service protection is separate.

The biggest job facing ex-presidents, according to aides, is answering mail. But there are other matters, such as giving speeches and appearing at events.

In 1993, a budget-minded Congress decided that the costs of maintaining the nation's former chief executives were getting out of hand. There were five living former presidents at the time—Richard Nixon was still alive—the most since the Civil War.

Lawmakers voted to end the office subsidies for the five on October 1, 1998, and to limit the allowance for future ex-presidents to four years and six months after they left office. Security and pensions weren't affected.

"They were beginning to pile up on us," said former Democratic Rep. Andy Jacobs Jr. of Indiana, a longtime critic of the allowances.

With the cutoff looming, Ford visited several members of Congress in 1996, urging them to restore the lifetime allowance. Nothing happened. Ford said he made a few calls in 1997 to check on the status.

Last year, a provision repealing the time limit was included in a $25 billion Treasury spending bill that became law in October. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of an Appropriations Committee panel that handles presidential allowances, said it was justified. "It was our considered judgment that former presidents have substantial responsibilities that flow from their positions as president and it is appropriate to support them," he said. The allowance dates to 1958, when former President Truman said he was going broke paying for postage to answer letters from citizens. Today ex-presidents can earn large sums giving speeches, writing books, making corporate appearances, and consulting. Critics say the allowance is unnecessary. "It is ridiculous," said David Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, which advocates lower taxes. "There are no 'official' duties of a former president. Anything they do is out of their own interest and involvement in politics."

Ford said he foots part of the bill for his three-person office on the grounds of his home near country clubs. Reagan's allowance for pensions and office is $700,800, the highest among the former presidents. It includes $270,000 in rent for his Century City office. An aide didn't return phone calls.

Carter's allowance for 1998, including pension, is $499,800, including $90,000 for rent, $96,000 for staff salaries and $2,000 for travel.

"Ex-presidents are a tremendous asset to this country and it's a small amount of money to allow them to do things like respond to mail," said Carrie Harmon, a Carter spokeswoman.

George H. W. Bush's allotment is $583,800. He pays some expenses for his staff of eight, spokesman Michael Danhenhauer said, and "is very pleased" the allowance will continue.

—From the Ashland (Oregon) Daily Tidings, January 13, 1998

Question: Why would I, who live at a fairly marginal level, want to contribute to that group of millionaires?

Answer: I wouldn't.

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