Washington — Former presidents have a pretty good job. They get free office space and bodyguards, and don't have to lie awake nights wondering where they can hide the MX missile.
But this life style is now under attack. Congress, uneasy over fast-rising costs, is seriously weighing cuts in ex-presidents' benefits.
''These former presidents are millionaires merely by the fact that they made it to the White House,'' Rep. Andrew Jacobs (D) of Indiana told House colleagues last week.
Supporting former occupants of the White House in the style to which they have become accustomed is not a major cause of the US deficit. There are only three living former presidents, after all, plus presidential widow Lady Bird Johnson. The most junior member of the House of Representatives has a larger staff than does Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford, claims Rep. Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.
Overall, presidential retirement benefits will cost the United States about $ 30 million this year. The money pays for office help and Secret Service protection for ex-presidents and their families, and for the operation of presidential libraries.
This is, however, a fast-growing part of the federal budget. Critics of the programs often point out that in 1955, before Congress voted office staff and Secret Service protection for former presidents, the Congress appropriated but $ 64,000 for former occupants of the White House - and those funds were just for Harry Truman's and Franklin D. Roosevelt's libraries.
And some members of Congress resent what they call ''the imperial former presidency.'' Why should the government rent offices for ex-presidents, these legislators complain, when their experience makes them worth thousands of dollars on the lecture circuit, in book stores, and at golf tournaments?
''Former presidents now get $25,000 a speech. With all due respect, I am trying to figure out which one can make a $25,000 speech,'' said Representative Jacobs, perhaps the most strident critic of ex-presidents' federal funds.
In the past, Congress as a whole has been reluctant to tackle this issue, perhaps because ''many members can envision themselves as an ex-president,'' jests one congressional aide. This year, however, proposals to cut the budget for ex-presidents have progressed relatively far.
Last week, for instance, almost unnoticed in the general pre-recess frenzy, the House voted to cut ex-presidents' personal expenses by 10 percent.
The House also attacked the fast-growing cost of running presidential libraries. These libraries don't directly benefit former presidents themselves, of course, but they represent the most expensive item in the general ex-presidential budget.
Currently, such libraries are built with private funds, then turned over the US government, which pays for maintenance and operation. Last year, the seven libraries needed $13 million in federal funds. But on June 25, the House passed a bill that would require a library's private donors to provide an endowment to help defray operating costs.
Senate efforts to curb the ex-presidency would go even further. In April, a Senate committee approved a bill, sponsored by Sen. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida , that would gradually slice former presidents' staff allowances by one-third, and limit the size of presidential libraries. Under the bill, former presidents would receive Secret Service protection for their first five years out of office , instead of for life, as is now the case.
The Senate bill has been stalled, however, by the opposition of the current occupant of the White House. ''The administration opposes the imposition of any additional restrictions on the privileges and prerogatives of former presidents, '' wrote Budget Director David A. Stockman in a letter to Senators.
Supporters of presidential retirement programs argue that the US public places many demands on its former leaders. Harry S. Truman, after he left Washington, received some 400 invitations a month and had to answer them all himself, for example.
If the US is willing to spend some $23 million for Secret Service agents to accompany presidential candidates around the country, it shouldn't begrudge the funds spent on behalf of those who have actually won the office, argue supporters.
''The purpose is to honor and regard the office from which they came,'' argued Representative Foley on the floor of the House last week.