Something good might come from Bill Clinton's ‘‘homecoming'' to Harlem if it focuses our attention on what taxpayers pay to subsidize all of our former presidents.
Congress began helping ex-presidents in 1958 because Harry Truman was a relatively poor man and because it was thought proper to help ease the transition of former presidents back into private life. Prior to that, no formal federal pension or any other benefit was paid to ex-presidents.
Like most other government programs, the relative pittance ($25,000 annual pension) paid to Truman has grown to a $2.5 million entitlement for our five living ex-presidents. This includes an annual six-figure pension, plus money for secretarial help and Secret Service protection (the General Services Administration has requested $3,376,000 for ex-presidents and staff in the fiscal 2002 budget).
According to Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, there are few restrictions on how the money is spent, including political activity. Istook has asked the Government Accounting Office to contact each ex-president and find out exactly where the money for office and staff goes. That report is due in September. Istook's office says he will then consider legislation that would place restrictions on what ex-presidents receive and how it can be used.