WASHINGTON -- In this era of huge federal debt and fiscal dysfunction, it's less than heartening to learn from the Congressional Research Service that the nation's four living former chief executives got a total of $3.7 million in pensions and operating expenses last year from Uncle Sam, aka the American taxpayer.
The largesse is provided under the terms of the Former Presidents Act, which Congress passed in 1958 to ease presidents back into private life and enable them to handle mail, travel and other obligations they carried with them into retirement. Each is entitled to an annual pension of $200,000, and the bulk of the rest of the expenses are incurred keeping in touch with public demands.
George W. Bush, to the tune of more than $1.3 million. That high cost has been attributed to the heavy expense of transition to private life, although in his case that was four years ago. The others' payouts included: Bill Clinton, just under $1 million; George H.W. Bush, nearly $850,000; and Jimmy Carter, about $500,000.
In a federal budget that runs into the trillions, these amounts may seem like chump change. But they go to men who have done pretty well on their own, by virtue of family wealth or by cashing in on their resumes. The Bushes are in the first category. Clinton has made a personal fortune in speech-making, and Carter has done well as an author, in addition to heading the Carter Center in Atlanta for the advancement of world peace, financed by donations.
The Former Presidents Act, according to the Congressional Research Service, was born of congressional concern over the financial straits of President Harry Truman, the one-time haberdasher, after he left office in 1953. At that time, there was no financial provision for retiring presidents.
Nearly half a century earlier, in 1912, multimillionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie proposed setting up an annual pension of $25,000 for retired presidents, but members of Congress decided it would be inappropriate for a private donor to provide the money. Nothing happened until 1955, when a public funding bill was proposed, and then enacted by Congress in 1958. The law also provides taxpayer money through a Presidential Transition Act that finances the shutdown expenses of the offices of retiring presidents and vice presidents for seven months after they leave office.
In addition, and not included in the payout to former presidents made public, are undisclosed taxpayer amounts for Secret Service protection for all former presidents, their spouses and minor children. Considering the existing public hostility toward high-level officeholders and the gun mayhem of the current era, this precaution is clearly warranted.
Retiring presidents and their immediate family members also are entitled to free medical care at military hospitals, and presidential widows get $20,000 annual pensions as well.
Public funds also maintain the official presidential libraries run by the National Archives and Research Administration, including the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California. The latter was opened and financed by private funds until it was taken over by the NARA after agreement to modify certain exhibits, including a controversial one on the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.
After Nixon left office, the Justice Department ruled that he remained eligible for the lifetime pension, on grounds "a person who has been president, is not currently president, and who has not been removed from office pursuant to impeachment and conviction in the Senate ... clearly meets the statutory definition of a former president."
This ruling held, despite the fact that Nixon's resignation occurred after key congressional Republicans told him his impeachment was certain if he did not step down.
The whole matter of providing financial assistance and security to former presidents and their families might not be particularly jarring to many Americans were it not for the current financial turmoil, the relatively low public standing of former presidents in opinion polls, and the sharp partisan divide in the country.
Also, going back at least to Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, some former presidents have found such highly lucrative opportunities in speeches and corporate board positions in their retirements that the continued taxpayer assistance to them may seem unnecessary, or at least excessive.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)