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The corrupting influence of lousy pay

Want to clean up Congress? Give them more money

2007.01.29 — Government | Business | Politics | by Barton Castor


Pay the piggy: get results

When Bill Clinton left the White House to his successor, he had arranged with Congress a pay raise for the president (such things always take effect for the next guy). Cost of living increases had driven many federal jobs' salaries up close to his paltry $200 thousand annual salary, and it was becoming embarrassing. Congress members vote themselves raises pretty regularly. Of course, voters often complain about this—pretty much every time Congress votes themselves a pay raise, in fact—even tho US government employees, from the president on down, make lousy money. Lousy. And DC is an expensive place to live.

The president

The president of the United States is considerably more important, more influential, and more personally responsible for the economic well-being of the country than any other individual. He (or she) should be paid on a par with the CEO of a major, multi-national corporation. If those are the kinds of people we want to be president, we should pay them comparably.

[T]he president, even with the raise GWB got, makes a mere $400 thousand a year....

I'm not suggesting we should pay them identically, of course, and certainly not that we should pay them as much as the very top CEOs, since those people tend to be robbing their own companies in moral and ethical terms—and sometimes in legal terms. But the president, even with the raise GWB got, makes a mere $400 thousand a year, plus some expenses—state social events, government security, military transportation, a residence (the White House), and a vacation resort (Camp David). There are a few other perks, but they are pretty immaterial—and CEOs gets better perks anyway, for the most part.

Now, $400 thousand a year may seem like a lot to you, but for a top executive of any sort, it's kind of quaint. Beyond being paltry compensation to lure CEOs and financiers into government service, it's hard to even conduct a decent upper-crust social life with that sort of money when you are expected to pay for many parties, non-government travel, top-quality education for your children, furnishings for a grand mansion, fancy wardrobes, and more—and you're not allowed to accept many gifts.

The $25 thousand that George Washington was allotted... is equivalent to about $500 thousand today

Harry Truman couldn't afford it. Congress had to allot $50 thousand a year for upkeep of the White House, and the Navy had to start providing servants and cafeteria service in the West Wing. In fact, a study of life in the White House (by way of autobiographies of those who have worked there) suggests that nearly all presidents have had to pinch pennies in the White House (ironically, not the Depression-era ones; both Hoover or FDR were very wealthy men). The $25 thousand that George Washington was allotted (he didn't accept it) is equivalent to about $500 thousand today, and, at times, raises have even brought the inflation-adjusted figure to over $1 million. So $400 thousand isn't even keeping up with inflation, let alone the private sector.

Congress and others

And it doesn't stop at the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. Virtually all federal employee pay is tied indirectly to the president's. After all, it wouldn't do to have the White House counsel or presidential physician make more than the boss, even tho top-drawer lawyers and MDs in the private sector make well over $400 thousand a year.

[S]enators and representatives make just $165,200....

You know all those midnight sneak-thief raises members of Congress vote themselves? Even with them, senators and representatives make just $165,200 (more for leaders). That's about what a good lawyer or mid-level corporate manager makes. And yet these same people have to deal every day with corporate executives and lobbyists who could buy and sell them—and sometimes do.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has publicly called for a raise for federal judges. They get the same pay as members of Congress: just $165,200 (altho Supremes make over $200 thousand). That's about half what is made by law school deans, senior professors, not to mention the lawyers who plead before them.

[D]ozens of staff assistants and writers in the White House who make less than $44 thousand....

And all these judges and members of Congress have staffs who are even more poorly paid, of course. Many can barely afford to live close enough to work to actually perform their jobs. There are dozens of staff assistants and writers in the White House who make less than $44 thousand a year, the national median household income. I'm not suggesting that there aren't jobs in the White House or Capitol that are worth less than $44 thousand, but dozens in the White House alone? It seems ridiculous.

The result of miserliness

So what result does this miserly pay produce? It doesn't produce miserliness in Congressional spending. It's expensive to run this country, and Congress wields tax exemptions and expenditures as its primary means of doing it—and it doesn't matter how little the Capitol gang takes home themselves.

Ideologs lead us... into places like Vietnam and Iraq. Schemers lead us... to the savings & loan bailout and the Enron collapse.

The real result is that only wealthy people can afford to run for national office and only the power-hungry among them can afford to keep it. The people who work for them tend to be either raging ideologs willing to sacrifice their own prosperity to walk the halls of power or else cynical schemers looking to cash in as lobbyists after trolling the halls of power for contacts for a few years. Ideologs lead us down the path of self-delusion and into places like Vietnam and Iraq. Schemers lead us down the path of corrupt deregulation to the savings & loan bailout and the Enron collapse.

At lower levels, those willing to take federal jobs tend to be either those who just couldn't hack it in the private sector or who genuinely believe in the power of government to help the public good. If we paid them more, we'd quickly attract enough genuinely competent people to weed out the former. And we'd be rewarding the latter with the pay they deserve.

How to fix it

[S]tart paying the president about $2 million a year

The way to fix the pay problem is fairly simple: start paying the president about $2 million a year (plus expenses and perks)—the average for a multinational corporate CEO—and maintain that level with regular adjustments for inflation. The VP should get about $1.5 million. Then we can start paying their staffs the kind of salaries they deserve: half a million or so for the White House chief of staff and other top advisers, $300-400 thousand for Cabinet secretaries. $200-250 thousand for senior assistants (who, in a corporate setting, would probably be VPs).

Congress should be paid at least double their current pay, around $350 thousand. That would make them more resistant to the petty bribery of tens of thousands dollars from lobbyists looking for a multimillion dollar payback in legislation slanted their way. Federal judge pay would follow suit, making them about equal to law school professors.

The pay raises would trickle down to staffers too, of course. And the higher pay for the bosses would allow a broader spread among staffers, meaning fewer "executive assistants" would make the same pay as "special assistants" and "assistants." Those making just $25-45 thousand would be raised to $35-$100 thousand. Suddenly, more than just ideologs and dilettantes would get involved in government. Then maybe they could concentrate more on the business of government and less on paying the bills.


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