Reforming presidential pensions: another view

Yesterday we saw another outbreak of calls to reform the presidential pension system, first established through The Former Presidents Act of 1958. Ruth Marcus wrote a forceful piece on this subject in the Washington Post and our own Ed Morrissey chimed in largely siding with her. There was a fair amount of debate taking place on social media and I was part of it, mostly on the opposite side.

But that doesn’t mean I disagreed with everything under discussion. The slush fund for POTUS pensions has a number of layers and since it’s all funded by the taxpayer the program is obviously subject to criticism. In addition to the basic stipend former presidents receive, there’s the Secret Service coverage and all of the so-called “office expenses” they can use to run their own future political affairs office. Let’s take a look at what Ed concluded in that regard.

The best way to address this would be to stop paying office expenses right up front. Former presidents have plenty of income potential to pay for their own operations. A pension is not unreasonable, but neither is a means test to spare taxpayers the cost if it’s unnecessary.

Would it be fair to apply this retroactively to the current retirees? We have five at the moment — Jimmy Carter, the two Bushes, Clinton, and Obama — who would have to recalculate their financial commitments if those changes were made, but all except Carter have the means to do so. The pension isn’t a contract, and Congress should be able to allocate taxpayer funds as it sees fit otherwise. Politically, though, it probably will be easier to follow the tradition in presidential pension legislation and apply it only to future presidents. However, a limit on expenses applied immediately is not unreasonable, and in fact is long overdue — by about ten years.

If we want to look at this strictly in terms of guarding the taxpayers’ purse, then fine. Provided it’s means tested we could certainly consider tapering off or even eliminating the stipend if the ex-POTUS can be shown to be earning more than that on their own. I also agree with Ed on the office expenses. Having such an office and staff to carry on any sort of work, be it political, charitable, or just selling vacuum cleaners door to door, is a choice that the individual makes. No need for the public to foot the bill for that. The Secret Service protection on the other hand, as Ed himself noted, is a worthwhile and necessary expense.

So in the end, it may sound like I’m agreeing with all of this, but yet I’m not. You see, it’s not so much the question of whether or not this is a good investment for the taxpayer so much as the other reasons being invoked and the tone being taken. While I’m not accusing Ed Morrissey of this, there was a definite flavor out in the social media food fight which showed that people wanted to specifically “strip Obama of his pension.” That was reflected in this piece from Daniel Chaitin at the Washington Examiner. He too invoked the proposal being brought up by Jason Chaffetz, talking about how Obama’s $400K speaking fee, “has prompted another attempt to strip his pension, says House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz.” And on Twitter, Chaffetz seemed to concur.

Chaffetz, in tweeting out the USA Today report, with the headline, “Obama’s $400,000 speech could prompt Congress to go after his pension,” added his own message: “Yes, it will.”

Liberals have been guilty of the same thing. It’s a repeating cycle because the Right has also gone after the vast bills run up by Bill Clinton while he too was raking in huge amounts of cash. So we have to decide whether this is simply an exercise in fiscal restraint or a complaint that somebody is “making too much money.”

Now, in the case of Obama, he leaves himself open to scorn because of his previous comments about how people sooner or later have made enough money. So we have a politician who is obviously being a hypocrite, talking the talk while failing to walk the walk. I’ll hand out smelling salts shortly to any of you who fainted in surprise from that revelation. But my point in all of this is that the real hypocrisy is on the part of any conservatives who want to “go after Obama’s pension” but also claim to believe in capitalism and an America where everyone deserves a shot at making the most out of the American dream that they can. I wrote about this here before. In fact, I did it twice. No matter how much I may have criticized Barack Obama and disagreed with his policies (and that was a lot) I refuse to be so cynical as to deny him the right to get rich off of his own accomplishments. Sure, getting plush book deals and massive speaking fees just to talk about your former job isn’t as “admirable” as being the guy who invented Teflon, but it’s what the man has available to sell.

The point is that under the current rules of the road, Obama isn’t doing anything wrong. He vetoed the last attempt to reform presidential pensions (possibly with just this current scenario in mind) but that’s how the legislative game is played. The pensions and other perks are still in place for any president. If we want to limit or remove them through our elected representatives, that’s our right, provided the changes apply equally to every former president. But for now the laws are what they are and Obama is coloring inside the lines. If he’s taking every opportunity to get rich right now, that’s the game nearly all of us are playing in this country. Getting angry specifically at just Obama for his speaking fees and his pension runs counter to the principles of conservatism and capitalism. Until the law is changed, let the man make his money and wish him well. It’s America, baby. What a country!