Obama Vetoes Bill Cutting Former Presidents' Pension, Allowances

Wealthy Former Presidents Might Get No Benefits At All

Former US Presdients
President Obama and the Four Surviving Former US Presidents. Getty Images

On July 22, 2016, President Obama vetoed the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act, which would have cut the pensions and allowances paid to former presidents.

In his veto message to Congress, Obama said the bill “would impose onerous and unreasonable burdens on the offices of former presidents.”

In an accompanying press release, the White House added that the President had vetoed the bill because it would have “immediately terminate salaries and all benefits to staffers carrying out the official duties of former presidents -- leaving no time or mechanism for them to transition to another payroll.”

In addition, said the White House, the bill would have made it harder for the Secret Service to protect former presidents and would “immediately terminate leases, and remove furniture from offices of former presidents working to fulfilling their continued public service responsibilities.”

The White House added that the President was willing to work with Congress in resolving his issues with the bill. “If Congress provides these technical fixes, the president would sign the bill,” said the White House.

The White House noted that the President had vetoed the bill only after consulting with the four other surviving former presidents and that the veto was “responsive to concerns they raised to us.”

Had it not been vetoed, the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act would have:

Cut Pensions and Allowances for Former Presidents

While not specifically aimed at Bill Clinton, who has made $104.9 million to “pay the bills” from speaking fees alone, the bill would have cut the pensions and allowances of former presidents.

Under the current Former Presidents Act, former presidents receive an annual pension equal to the salaries of Cabinet Secretaries.

Under the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act, the pensions of all former and future former presidents would have been capped at a maximum of $200,000 and the current link between presidential pensions and the annual salaries of Cabinet Secretary would have been removed.

Replaced Other Benefits with a Single Allowance

The bill would have also removed other benefits currently given to former presidents, including those for travel, staff, and office expenses. Instead, former presidents would have been given an additional $200,000 allowance to be used he or she determined.

In other words, under Chaffetz’s bill, former presidents would have gotten an annual pension and allowance totaling no more than $400,000 — the same as the current presidential salary.

However, under another provision of the bill, the pensions and allowances paid to former presidents could have been reduced further or even eliminated completely by Congress.

Under Rep. Chaffetz’s bill, for every dollar former presidents earn in excess of that $400,000, their government-provided annual allowance would have been reduced by $1. In addition, former presidents who went on to hold any elected position in the federal government or the District of Columbia would have received no pension or allowance while holding that office.

For example, under Chaffetz’s dollar-for-dollar penalty plan, former President Clinton, who made almost $10 million from speaking fees and book royalties in 2014, would have received no pension or allowances at all.

But Presidential Widows Would Have Seen a Raise

The bill would have increased the allowance paid to the surviving spouses of deceased former presidents from $20,000 to $100,000 a year. Currently, the only surviving spouse of a former president is Nancy Reagan, who received $7,000 in benefits in 2014, according to the Congressional Research Service.

How Much Have Former Presidents Been Getting?

According to an April 2014 Congressional Research Service report, the four surviving former presidents received a government pension and allowance benefits in 2014 totaling:

  • Jimmy Carter - $470,000
  • George H.W. Bush -- $837,000
  • Bill Clinton -- $950,000
  • George W. Bush -- $1,287,000

Rep. Chaffetz and other supporters of the Presidential Allowance Modernization Act argued that modern former presidents are highly unlikely to be strapped for cash, an opinion supported by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“No current former President has claimed publicly to have significant financial concerns,” stated the CRS report. But, that has not always the case.

Prior to the enactment of the Former Presidents Act in 1958, former presidents received no federal pension or other financial assistance at all, and some did suffer the “hard times.”

“Some former Presidents—like Herbert Hoover and Andrew Jackson — returned to wealthy post-presidential lives,” stated the CRS. “Other former Presidents — including Ulysses S. Grant and Harry S. Truman — struggled financially.”

Former President Truman, for example, said that just responding to his mail and requests for speeches cost him more than $30,000 a year.

Current Status of the Bill

The Presidential Allowance Modernization Act was passed by the House of Representatives on January 11, 2016, and by the Senate on June 21, 2016. The bill, as passed by the House and Senate, was vetoed by President Obama on July 22, 2016.

On December 5, 2016, the bill, along with President Obama’s accompanying veto message, was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. After deliberation, the committee decided against attempting to override the president’s veto.