Ronald Reagan is not known to practice leadership by example. Recently, for instance, he sent Congress a proposal to cut the pay of federal workers by 5 percent. but he did riot apply that same level of sacrifice to his $200,000 a year Presidential salary. Now, however, he has an opportunity to support legislation, sponsored by Senators Lawton Chiles (D-FL), David Pryor (D-ARK) and Senator William Roth (R-DE) to curb the runaway expenses piled up by former Presidents and charged to the American taxpayer.
Taxpayer assistance to former Presidents started out modestly and properly. Both Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had few resources with which to respond to letters and many other inquiries that poured in on them after they left the White House In addition to providing ex-Presidents with pensions, Congress passed laws to provide funds to permit these leaders to lead a dignified retirement, free from any pressures to “commercialize” the institution of the presidency. Those years, in the nineteen fifties, preceded million dollar book advances. lucrative speeches and service on corporate boards of directors.
In the past thirty years, ex-Presidents have done very well financially, and together with their ample pensions, taxpayer-funded staff, offices and round-the-clock Secret Service protection, they can be considered well-fixed. No one has commercialized the Oval Office asset more than Gerald Ford. He is a veritable mini-conglomerate and undoubtedly grosses close to a million dollars a year.
Ex-Presidential material success stories have not led to a lightening of the taxpayer’s burden. The cost of supporting ex-Presidents, apart from their pensions, has risen from $65,000 in 1955 to $6.3 million in 1975 to over $27 million in 1964. Now some members of Congress are calling for limits to be placed on this budget, something that present laws do not do.
The three Senators have introduced S.1047; a proposed Former Presidents Facilities and Services Reform Act This legislation has three parts:
- to limit future maintenance and operational costs of libraries dedicated to former Presidents. These libraries are built with privately donated gifts but they are operated with taxpayer funds. The bill would require that the private contributors put a percentage of the construction costs into an endowment the interest from which would pay for a large share of the operational costs of the library.
- to place a cap on the costs of providing office space, equipment and staff for former Presidents at $300,000 a year for each President declining over a period of nine years to a ceiling of $200,000.
- to limit full-time protection by the Secret Service to the first 5 years of a President’s retirement. Thereafter, protection could be reinstated by the Secretary of the Treasury for one year intervals or under emergency edict by the sitting President.
Some self-restraint is in evidence by the former Presidents. In March, Richard Nixon asked that his Secret Service protection be permanently terminated by July 31, 1985. Gerald Ford is reportedly considering a similar request.
Mr. Reagan should sign such legislation after it passes Congress this year, as expected. Such a decision could initiate an examination of the burgeoning White House costs that are inviting allusions to an Imperial Presidency. Once the taxpayers hear how much it costs just to transport the President to his ranch in Santa Barbara, Mr. Reagan might be hearing from more than a few members of Congress that budget cutting is well served when it starts at the top.