When Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, unexpectedly lost his party’s nomination to seek reelection our sympathies soon abated when we realized that what faces him on the far side of his abruptly ended political career is an opportunity for amassing great wealth. Nonetheless, in his no doubt sumptuously supplied dotage, he will receive a pension from the public purse.
According to the Congressional Research Service, members of Congress are eligible for a pension after five years of service (i.e., after one term in the Senate or after reelection twice to the House of Representatives). Members may begin receiving payments at age 62, or at 50 if they have served at least 20 years. Rep. Cantor is in his 14th year.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) left Congress after a pension-worthy eight years to advance his political goals as president of The Heritage Foundation, where he is estimated to earn more than $1 million a year. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) retired after 33 years in the Senate, so we take care of him with a pension totaling 80 percent of his Senate salary. He’s spending his golden years making $2.4 million a year leading the Motion Picture Association of America.
The purpose behind anyone’s pension is to provide a reduced income to support a lifelong worker in reasonable comfort during the sunset years when he or she is no longer able to work. But with 42 percent of congressmen and -women and half our senators taking up lucrative careers as lobbyists (compared to 3 percent in 1974), do political pensions still make sense? Or should they be means tested?
Since passage of the Former Presidents Act of 1958, we have been giving presidents “a pension, support staff, office support, travel funds, and mailing privileges” in order to “maintain the dignity” of the office. President Harry Truman died a man of humble means in part because he turned down offers to monetize his White House experience. “I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency,” he later explained. But presidents from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush have had no problem with cashing in. Bill Clinton only perfected the craft: He receives an annual pension of $201,000 and has taken in almost $16 million in allowable expenses since leaving office in 2001. But Clinton is estimated to have made $89 million as of 2013 in payment for speeches during his post-presidency, most of it overseas, and recently commanding up to $750,000 for an appearance.
Then there are the book deals. Hillary Clinton received an $8 million advance for her first autobiography and $14 million for her most recent tome. The former first lady, senator, and then secretary of state has made unwelcome news for herself by receiving speaker fees of up to $275,000. And she’s not even president yet!
Given President Barack Obama’s relative youth and iconic status, his income potential as of 2017 is astronomical.
We spend so much money taking care of people who should take care of themselves, even as we neglect our military veterans for whom we should care generously. So why are we funding the retirement of these politico-millionaires?