How America's presidents started cashing out

Right up until Gerry Ford, American presidents routinely refused any kind of directorships, paid lecture tours, or other opportunities to commercialize the office -- instead, they relied upon the generous presidential pension, currently at $200k/year plus a staff and expenses.

(This is the pension that Hillary Clinton says left her and Bill "not only dead broke, but in debt" when Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000.)

Before Ford, presidents made a big deal out of the necessity of staying out of the private sector. Here's Truman: "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency,"

But Ford took a seat on Fox's board, got an honorary directorship from Citigroup, and started cashing in with high-paid lectures. Reagan went further, literally collecting millions for 20 minute speeches. GWB made $15m+ from 100 speeches between 2011-2015.

Bill and Hillary, meanwhile, have made $139m from their lectures ($35m from banks).

Congress appropriated $3.5 million for presidential pensions and other benefits in 2015.

Members of Congress in both parties are sponsoring legislation that would reduce ex-presidents’ pension payouts if they earn more than a predefined threshold in private sector earnings annually.

“Taxpayers should not have to pay for a former president’s allowance if the former president is making a comfortable living earning more than $400,000 a year after leaving office,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.about the bill. The bill passed the House in January.

One recent ex-president who didn’t cash out, of course, is Jimmy Carter. Perhaps not coincidentally, in a Quinnipiac University poll released this last November, a plurality of Americans said Carter has had the best post-presidency.

Taxpayers Give Big Pensions to Ex-Presidents, Precisely So They Don’t Have to Sell Out [Zaid Jilani/The Intercept]

(Image: Ronald Reagan $Million Dollar$ Thanks a Million Novelty Bill)

Notable Replies

  1. deedub says:

    Especially in the case of Hillary, who is still very much an active politician, "speaking fees" are a transparent euphemism for "bribes".

  2. Why should the presidential pension get an inflation adjustment if regular citizens' paychecks haven't?

  3. Senator Sanders begs to differ.

  4. Not only did Jimmy Carter not cash out.

    When he was in the White House, he put his stocks, bonds, whatever, in a blind trust. Apparently that's what Presidents do.

    By the time he left office, the blind trust had tanked, and the Carters' net wealth had plummeted.

    I don't have a citation for this information; I recall Carter acknowledging it during an interview on Air America, several years ago.

    It was a strange interview. The interviewer brought up the "your blind trust tanked" thing, and Carter acknowledged the facts. I got the impression that the interviewer was needling Carter about it -- taking a bit of schadenfreude in the matter -- oh yes, you were President, but you lost a lot of money. Then -- cut to commercials, and what do we get? An ad for Payday Loans, and an ad for second mortgages obviously pitched at desperate debtors.

  5. PatRx2 says:

    Actually, we are going about it the wrong way. Post-presidency (post-Congress, post-upper civil service) speaking engagements, directorships, etc., are payments for services already rendered. When you are a Chris Dodd and you're making a 7+-figure per annum lobbying for the people you once legislated, trimming the pension isn't going to have a serious effect.

    Corruption is a lot more subtle these days than slipping the politico or civil servant a wad of cash or setting up a nice Credit Suisse account; it's now "do the dirty" while ostensibly serving the public, and retire to nice "legitimate" income streams from the people you were supposed to be regulating. Much less easy to prove, much more amenable to a less obvious "Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we look after our homeys."

    If we want to cut down on this kind of revolving door corruption, make it a felony to take up a line of work on retirement that has anything to do with what the individual was called on to regulate (including paid speaking engagements), and make it for a period of at least 10 years after retirement. Do this for all the top echelons of government, legislature, executive, civil service, judiciary.

    Beef up the pensions if necessary, but jail 'em and RICO 'em if they step an inch out of line. Do the same for their would-be employers.

    Combine this with reform of campaign finances, and we might get public servants who actually are public servants. (I'm not American, so I'm not talking about just the USA - this crap is endemic throughout the Western world right now.)

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