- Historic Sites
The ex-Presidency now carries perquisites and powers that would have amazed all but the last few who have held that office
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
Still, there was no presidential pension. One was enacted as part of the congressional pension program in 1942, but the whole program was quickly repealed in the wake of a vehement public outcry against congressional avarice during a period of wartime sacrifice. After the war, Congress enacted its own pension program, but the presidential pension was not adopted for another dozen years. Instead the legislature increased the presidential salary to $100,000 in 1949. Recently it has been increased to $250,000.
In considering the proposal for a stipend for ex-Presidents in 1957, Congress addressed the old dilemma between earning potential and the need to maintain decorum. As a Senate committee asserted in recommending federal funding: “We expect a former President to engage in no business or occupation which would demean the office he has held or capitalize upon it in any improper way. There are many ways in which a former President can earn a large income, but ought not to.”
With the Former Presidents Act of 1958, Congress essentially established an office of the ex-President. It declared that each former Chief Executive was entitled to receive “a monetary allowance” of $25,000 a year. (Since this represented a kind of salary rather than a contributory pension, the Internal Revenue Service later determined that it was taxable, like the President’s salary.)
Congress also authorized a staff to assist the ex-President. The former Chief Executive could select, without regard to the Civil Service and classification laws, assistants and secretaries who would then become federal employees. They would be responsible solely to him in the performance of their duties. The staff allowance paid by the government was not to exceed that of the senator from the least populous state, which in 1958 meant $50,000 a year. The ex-President also received office space, furnishings, and equipment at a place in the United States determined by him. He was also given free mailing privileges. Like the comparable allowances for a President in office, these allowances for the ex-President were considered by Internal Revenue to be tax free.
Finally, Congress provided a pension of $10,000 a year for presidential widows. Previously they had been given federal assistance only upon petition, and then by special acts of Congress.
The Former Presidents Act stemmed most immediately from the plight of Harry Truman. He found his resources drained by the $30,000 he said it cost him each year just to answer his mail and fulfill requests for speeches and public appearances. He had to have federal assistance, he told House Speaker Sam Rayburn, in order “to keep ahead of the hounds.”
Seeking passage of the bill, congressional leaders emphasized that a Chief Executive remained an important public figure for the rest of his life. “The American people,” declared Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, “still look to an ex-President for advice, for counsel, and for inspiration in their moments of trial.”
Nevertheless, dissatisfied Republicans in the House delayed action for two years. Publicly they warned that the bill gave ex-Presidents official standing, and that in the future they might use the governmental services to mount a campaign for public office at the taxpayers’ expense. Privately they complained that they were being asked to subsidize Truman’s attacks upon their party. Overwhelming support for the bill, however, came from the mass media and from the public, and it became law in 1958.
Since then the ex-presidential allowances have been increased to counter the erosion of inflation. In 1970 Congress adopted an escalator clause, making the stipend for former Presidents equal to the annual salary of Cabinet officers, an amount that rose from $60,000 in 1970 to $66,000 in 1976.
Former Presidents also have obtained the prerogative of addressing the U.S. Senate, a modification of the proposal championed by Harry Truman to make them lifetime, nonvoting members of the Upper Chamber. This was not a new idea. President Hayes had rejected it, declaring that representation in the Senate was already inequitable. President Taft said there was already too much discussion in the Senate. Hoping to encourage Franklin D. Roosevelt not to run for re-election, Thomas E. Dewey revived the idea during World War II, but had no luck.
In the postwar era, Congress considered several such bills, but failed to adopt any. Yet, in deference to Truman’s wishes, the Senate modified its rules in 1963 to give former Chief Executives the right to use it as a forum whenever they wished. The following year, on his eightieth birthday, Truman became the first ex-President to address the Senate in formal session.