Q: How long does Secret Service protection last for former presidents? Does it include grandchildren? Can they refuse it if they wish?
Rex Pierce, of Edwardsville
A: What the government giveth, the government can taketh away — only to giveth again.
That’s what happened three years ago when President Barack Obama signed legislation that restored lifetime Secret Service protection to former presidents and their spouses along with children until they are 16. It’s the latest chapter in a 60-year debate over just how much money should be spent on the nation’s former chief executives, who in the modern era generally have been far from destitute. And with the rancor that now often fills the nation’s capital, it’s a good bet the subject may arise again.
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For closing in on nearly 200 years, ex-presidents had no pension or other retirement benefits. In 1912, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie offered to endow a $25,000 annual pension for former presidents, but Congress balked, saying such a private subsidy would be unseemly. For more than four more decades, the former leaders of the world’s most powerful free nation did without.
Finally in 1958, Congress decided to “maintain the dignity” of the office by passing the Former Presidents Act. On Aug. 25, Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill that not only gave presidents and their spouses lifetime Secret Service protections, but also provided certain benefits to help them respond to mail and speaking requests and other informal public duties. These included staff, postage, pension and travel money. When the bill was signed, the largess applied to Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Ike himself when he left office two years later.
Little was said until 1994 when, in a fit of belt-tightening, Congress voted to limit Secret Service protection to 10 years. Bill Clinton signed the measure, which did not include Clinton because it applied only to presidents who took office after 1997. (Clinton’s first term started in 1993.)
But after the Sept. 11 attacks, some in Congress said the terrorism threat had changed the situation. They said it was only common sense that lifetime protection to former presidents be restored.
“We must make sure that the safety and security of our former chief executives is not jeopardized,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas.
Already, former presidents had chipped away at the restriction. Clinton had authorized extended coverage for daughter Chelsea. And, four days before he left office in 2009, George W. Bush ordered extended coverage for twin daughters Jenna and Barbara, who were 27 at the time. In both instances, the length of the extra coverage was undisclosed for security reasons.
So in 2012, Congress voted to restore lifetime Secret Service protection to all former presidents and their spouses along with children until their 16th birthday. Obama signed the measure Jan. 10, 2013. Spouses receive protection unless they divorce or remarry after an ex-president dies. In addition, former presidents now receive an annual pension currently set at $203,700; transitioning money when they leave office; and private office staff up to $150,000 per year for the first 30 months and $96,000 thereafter. Two-term presidents may even buy health insurance under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Veeps are given protection for the first six months.
In 1984, another law allowed former presidents and their dependents to decline Secret Service protection if they wished, which Richard Nixon did in 1985, 11 years after he left office. But current records indicate that the Carters, the Clintons and the two Bush families are availing themselves of the perk.
According to Congressional Research Service, President Obama’s fiscal year 2017 budget seeks nearly $4 million in appropriations for former presidents, an increase of $588,000 (17 percent) over fiscal year 2016. This anticipates Obama’s transition from incumbent to former president. These figures do not include the cost of Secret Service protection, which is not disclosed for security reason. However, some conjecture it may range in the tens of millions per year per president, another reason why some in Congress want to revisit the issue.
“I think we have seen that being a former president can be a pretty lucrative career,” said Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican from North Carolina, in 2012 after leading the fight in 1994 to limit such protection to 10 years. “I feel that after 10 years, if these former presidents feel the need for additional security, they should pay for it themselves.”
For a detailed look at what we spend on former presidents, punch up www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL34631.pdf.
On “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) wears a VISOR that gives the blind lieutenant commander some sense of sight. For what is VISOR an acronym?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: In 1955, Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, was enjoying so much success in TV and film that he decided to spin off a series that focused on a namesake of his horse, Champion. “The Adventures of Champion” (or “Champion the Wonder Horse”) followed 12-year-old Ricky North (Barry Curtis) and his adventures with a wild Mustang stallion named Champion. It ran for 26 episodes on CBS until March 1956.