Perks for former presidents: Congress tried to curb them before Trump

It’s almost too good to be an ex-president, lawmakers have said for years

Democrats will have to do more than impeach Donald Trump if they want to block his post-presidential benefits. Above, Trump speaks to supporters at the White House on Jan. 6, urging them to march on the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats will have to do more than impeach Donald Trump if they want to block his post-presidential benefits. Above, Trump speaks to supporters at the White House on Jan. 6, urging them to march on the Capitol. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 14, 2021 at 4:16pm

The presidency comes with a lot of perks: a house, a private jet, a vacation spot next to Maryland’s world-famous Catoctin Mountain (elevation: 1,900 feet), butlers, chefs and, for a lucky few, a bottomless supply of loyalty in Congress. 

One way or another, President Donald Trump will have to give most of that up on Jan. 20. But retirement brings a whole other set of benefits. Aside from lifetime Secret Service protection, he becomes eligible for an annual pension north of $200,000, a small staff, franking privileges, office supplies and an office to go with them.

Driven mainly by Republican deficit concerns, Congress has in recent years tried to cut back on how much we pay ex-presidents. After all, most of them have done pretty well for themselves, thanks to speaker’s fees and book royalties. In the year after he left the White House, Bill Clinton made $13.7 million that way, and both George W. Bush and Barack Obama got book advances that netted them tens of millions. 

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to lavish money on the club of former presidents, lawmakers reasoned, since corporate America was already doing it so nicely. 

Now the conversation around perks has shifted again, as Democrats and some Republicans look to penalize Trump however they can. What was once a debate over whether ex-presidents need a public bankroll has been overtaken by the question of whether one in particular deserves it.

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Why ex-presidents get so many dead presidents

Presidents didn’t always leave office with a golden parachute. Ulysses S. Grant’s family faced destitution until his autobiography, which he completed on his deathbed, became a bestseller through a marketing push from his publisher, Mark Twain. After returning home to Independence, Missouri, Harry S. Truman lived off his Army pension — about $1,000 a month in 2021 dollars — while spending tens of thousands responding to correspondence.

Truman admitted to House Majority Leader John McCormack that he was going broke in 1957, and McCormack got to work. In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act to “maintain the dignity” of the office of the president with an annuity of $25,000 per year and office expenses.

Today, the FPA sets the presidential pension at the pay grade for cabinet secretaries, which was $219,200 in 2020, per the Office of Personnel Management. And those boring-sounding office expenses can actually add up pretty quickly, since each emeritus is owed a workspace “appropriately furnished and equipped” in whatever part of the country they want.

A reform bill has been bouncing around the Hill for years now, with the aim of capping annual expenses for each past president and reducing them dollar for dollar if he earns more than $400,000.  

President Barack Obama vetoed it in 2016, saying it could have unintended consequences, like forcing the General Services Administration to immediately yank staff or furniture out from under the noses of the men he’d soon be joining in retirement.

Lawmakers tried again. Most recently, in 2019, the House passed a version of the bill backed by Georgia Republican Jody B. Hice, who helped lead the fight against certifying the Electoral College vote count last week, and the late Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has led the push in the Senate. She got bipartisan support from Democratic co-sponsors Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, along with Republicans Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Mike Braun of Indiana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, another electoral objector. The bill made it out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee but went nowhere after that. 

The real cost: Real estate

The General Services Administration handles the “allowances and office staff” for the four ex-presidents currently still living, which set taxpayers back $3.9 million last year.

In light of Trump’s defeat in November, congressional appropriators boosted that budget line by $500,000 in the final spending package passed in December, to $4.4 million.

It might not be enough.

According to the committee report on Ernst’s overhaul bill, of the $4.8 million spent in 2019, $2 million went to office rent, with the most recent presidents spending the most: Bill Clinton’s Harlem digs cost $513,000; George W. Bush’s Dallas office cost $500,000; and Barack Obama’s spot in Foggy Bottom cost $542,000.

If Trump decided to rent an office in midtown Manhattan — say, at 721 Fifth Ave. — it could cost taxpayers millions. 

Trump visited his own properties more than 280 times while in office, according to an October report in The Washington Post, letting the Trump Organization charge the federal government at least $2.5 million over the past four years. Once he’s out of office, Trump will only raid the Treasury more, says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen.

“A post-president Trump is likely to bill the federal government for an excessively lavish vacation/office space at one of his own resorts, such as Mar-a-Lago, which, in effect, will also be double billing,” Holman said. “Not only will Trump receive luxurious office space free of charge, taxpayer dollars paying for it will go into Trump’s own pocket.”

Holman thinks that might inspire Democrats to move aggressively on reform efforts. “Given the legendary self-dealing abuses of Donald Trump with taxpayer dollars, I would expect such a rollback will be quite likely in short order, particularly in the area of office expenses and staff,” he said.

Whether Republicans would now embrace such a rollback remains unclear. An Ernst representative declined to comment, and Hice and other senators didn’t respond to emails.

Either way, it could offer Democrats a legislative outlet for their ire toward the outgoing president beyond impeachment.

While the House on Wednesday impeached Trump for a second time, moving speedily after the mob attack on the Capitol to lay the blame at his feet, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted calls to immediately reconvene the Senate for a trial.

The timing matters: The FPA’s benefits apply to presidents “whose service in such office shall have terminated other than by removal pursuant to section 4 of article II of the Constitution of the United States” — that is, impeachment and conviction.

No one expects the Senate to remove Trump by a two-thirds vote before Joe Biden’s inauguration, so the FPA perks are still up for grabs. If the Senate goes on to convict Trump after he has already left office, it’s an open legal question whether he could claim them, though it seems likely he could. Lifetime Secret Service protection is a separate issue and would probably remain unchanged.

Trump will be eligible for federal fillips beyond the FPA, such as certain operating costs for any presidential library he chooses to build.

As the commander in chief, a president is also entitled to a state funeral afforded full military honors, including a flyover, a 21-gun salute, an honor guard and a caparisoned (riderless) horse.

In the grand scheme of things, the perks question can seem like a small one, especially as the Trump family faces an uncertain future after Jan. 20 full of debts, some degree of corporate shunning and the ultimate humiliation of a golf tournament pulled from one of his clubs. But the perks have symbolic power too.