The Clintons have made a $100-million fortune since leaving the White House, but a Politico analysis found that hasn't kept Bill Clinton from taking full advantage of the publicly funded perks offered to ex-presidents.
In fact, his presidential retirement benefits cost taxpayers almost as much as those of the other two living ex-presidents combined.
The price tag for Clinton's federal retirement allowance from 2001 through the end of this year will run $8 million, compared to $5.5 million for George H. W. Bush's and $4 million for Jimmy Carter's during the same period.
Since 2001, Clinton has received more of almost every benefit available to former presidents - from his pension to his staff's salaries and benefits to supplies. His $420,000 phone bill and $3.2 million office rent tab both nearly surpassed the totals rung up for those purposes by Bush, Carter and the late former presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan combined. As a group, they spent $484,000 on telephone service and $3.8 million on rent in the same span.
The figures come from congressional reports studying the presidential retirement program and from summaries of annual budget requests by the U.S. General Services Administration, which administers the program, created to allow former presidents to enjoy dignified retirements without having to take jobs that demean or commercialize the presidency.
Some of Clinton's greater spending stems from the fact that he served eight years in office, qualifying him for a federal health insurance plan unavailable to one-term presidents, and that he selected office space in the high-priced Manhattan market.
Politico's analysis comes on the heels of the release last week of seven years' worth of Clinton family tax documents. They showed that the Clintons pulled in $111 million in total income from 2000, their last year in the White House, through 2007.
Given Bill Clinton's earning potential and that of future ex-presidents, "the benefits taxpayers shell out for their care and feeding just don't make sense anymore," contended Pete Sepp, spokesman for the fiscally conservative, nonprofit National Taxpayers Union.
The group has pushed to reduce or cap the perks available to former presidents and their families. "There's a very flimsy justification for such generosity in many ex-presidents' cases. In Bill Clinton's case, there's zero," he said.
But Jay Carson, who worked for Clinton after his presidency and now serves as a spokesman for 's presidential campaign, said the former president's retirement allowances are justified.
"Since leaving office, President Clinton has represented the American people at home and abroad, at state funerals, through his work with former President Bush on the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, and through his vigorous charitable foundation work to fight AIDS, climate change and childhood obesity," Carson said in a statement.
None of the retirement resources are used for Hillary Clinton's campaign, Carson said.
"President Clinton's office's policy is that staff members paid by GSA who engage in political activity may not do so on GSA-paid time," he noted. In addition, Carson said Clinton did not spend the full amount allocated to him over the past three years.
Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958, after news spread of the financial struggles of former President Harry Truman. He wrote in his memoirs: "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency."
The act and subsequent legislation now entitle each former president to a pension, an office and staff, travel costs, mailing privileges and assorted other supplies, materials and services.
That's to say nothing of lifetme Secret Service protection, which costs significantly more than discretionary retirement allowances. It was not included in Politico's analysis because the agency doesn't disclose its budget for protecting individuals. The Government Accountability Office in a 2001 report pegged the cost of protecting all former presidents from 1977 through 2000 to $370 million, yet protected parties typically have little say in the size and shape of their details.
Former presidents can decide whether to accept the act's retirement benefits, as well as how much to request.
When a former president wants a given perk, his office informs the GSA, which submits a proposed budget to Congress using previous years' expenses as a guide. Since 2001, no ex-president has declined all the benefits, though some have accepted fewer specific perks or turned them down outright.
In 2002, for instance, Ford didn't accept a dime for printing costs, while Carter did not receive any money for his staff's benefits. According to GAO and Congressional Research Service records, Reagan from 1996 or earlier, until his death in 2004, did not accept a health insurance benefit that two-term presidents can opt to add to their pension payments.
Clinton applied for the health benefit before leaving office, according to the GSA, and has received it each year. This year, it was $10,000, according to GSA.
Carson said Clinton never sought increases from the GSA's proposals and, "on occasion, his staff has recommended decreases to the proposed budgets."
The GSA categorizes the benefits in broad categories that sometimes leave much to the imagination. For instance, since 2001, Clinton has received more than the other former presidents for "other services" ($751,000) and "supplies & materials" ($143,000), while Bush got the largest allowance for "equipment" ($328,000).
The GSA said "supplies" include "office supplies, publications and subscriptions," while "equipment" means "computers and peripheral equipment, as well as servers."
Some expenses, like phone bills and rent, have no limit, while others, like staff salaries, are capped.
Presidential pensions are statutorily set at the same amount per year as the salaries of sitting Cabinet secretaries, who will earn $191,000 this year.
As for the higher rent for Clinton's office, which is located in a penthouse in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, Carson said it's a function of location, location and location.
While Clinton's office is costlier per square foot, it is also more spacious than that of Bush or Carter.
This year, according to a 2007 Congressional Research Service report, taxpayers will fork over $516,000 for Clinton's 8,300-square-foot Harlem office, while Carter's 4,200-square-foot Atlanta digs will run them $102,000. Bush's 4,600-square-foot Houston spread will cost $175,000.
Carson stressed that not all of the space in Clinton's office is usable.
Clinton's rent would have been less if his office were on a lower floor, according to a 2001 GAO report, which said the rent per square foot for Clinton's office is about 4 percent higher than that of a Social Security office located on a lower floor in the same building. But the lower office doesn't have the same view of Central Park, the George Washington Bridge and most of Manhattan as that reportedly offered by Clinton's suite.
The offices of Bush and Reagan both also offered "good panoramic views," according to the GAO report, which said that, when it came to selecting Clinton's office, "no other comparable properties exist in the area."
Clinton's rent is quite a bit less than that of the office that was his first choice: a 56th-floor midtown Manhattan suite two blocks south of Central Park. Clinton backed away from plans to locate there amid criticism from congressional Republicans, then in the majority, over the estimated $811,000-per-year rent.
Carson said Clinton's Harlem office continues to serve a vital function, even as Clinton travels the country - paid for by his wife's presidential campaign, not taxpayers - stumping for her.
"While President Clinton is devoted to supporting Sen. Clinton's candidacy, his office continues to function," Carson said. "Each year, former President Clinton's office receives, processes and responds to tens of thousands of pieces of mail and e-mail correspondences and thousands of scheduling requests, the majority of which are related to his position as a former president."
By Kenneth P. Vogel