Brookings Scholar Endorses Reform of Presidential Gifts; Urges Congress to Address the Federal Pay Gap

Paul Light, vice president and director of the Governmental Studies program at the Brookings Institution, testified before the House Subcommittee on Government Efficiency, Financial Management and Intergovernmental Relations today, telling panel members that "public distrust in the federal government and federal officials is on the rise."

Light testified that passage of H.R. 1081 could help retain trust in the president through full disclosure and tracking of all presidential gifts.

"Trust is the greatest gift that any president or public official receives from the American public," Light stated. "It is also easily squandered by the smallest acts. Increasingly, Americans appear willing to believe the worst about our political leaders and public servants."

Light cited data from a series of recent surveys by the Center for Public Service as evidence of this increasing distrust. Trust in government has been on the decline for the past three decades, and the post-September 11 bounce was initially interpreted as the demise of this trend.

July 2001

October 2001

May 2002

Americans who trust the government in Washington just about always, or most of the time

29%

57%

40%

Americans with a very or somewhat favorable opinion of the federal government

50%

78%

60%

Americans with a very or somewhat favorable opinion of federal government workers

69%

76%

70%

Americans with a very or somewhat favorable opinion of presidential appointees

60%

79%

61%

"The post-September 11 surge in confidence has crested, and the American public remains skeptical about the basic motivations of their leaders and institutions," Light stated. "The current state of the presidential gift process—disorganized, fragmented and frustrating—coupled with the lack of pay parity across the highest levels of the federal government, add to perceptions of the 'corrupting temptations' of government."

Light endorsed H.R. 1081, which proposes reforming the current process of logging, valuing and managing gifts to the president.

"At best, the current system encourages Americans to believe the worst about their leaders; at worst, it creates the unmistakable appearance that gifts are not gifts at all, but rather down payments, or 'quid' for 'pro quos.'"

Additionally, Light urged panel members to address the increasing pay gap between federal officials and civic and other corporate executives as a way of increasing trust in government across the board in all branches.

"I believe American democracy gets what it pays for," Light cautioned. "Absent a significant pay raise, its top posts will only appeal to the very wealthy, the easily corruptible, or the hyper-zealous."

While the president's salary was doubled last year to $400,000—the first pay increase in three decades—judicial and congressional salaries have not kept pace.

"It is no surprise that early retirements are on the rise in the federal judiciary, or that potential presidential appointees might reject the president's call," Light commented. "Having kids in college or a home mortgage has become a liability, not an asset, for service."

Light suggested numerous options to address this problem, including doubling executive, legislative, and judicial pay to keep pace with the president's salary, implementing a pay scale system based on regional cost of living, or allowing all federal agencies to raise top salaries to more competitive levels.

Light acknowledged that such pay increases would be controversial. Citing a May 2002 survey commissioned by the Center for Public Service, Light stated that 54 percent of respondents were opposed to doubling congressional salaries, and 41 percent were opposed to doubling Supreme Court salaries, when told the dollar amount of each. When the issue was framed in terms of keeping pace with the president's salary, opposition lessened to 34 percent for Supreme Court salaries, and 53 percent for congressional salaries.

"Just because an issue is difficult doesn't make it impossible. Nor does controversy deny the need." Light encouraged the Subcommittee to attach a pay-increase proposal to H.R. 1081. As a senior adviser to the National Commission on the Public Service, he stated that the Commission would be likely to "lend its strong voice to this effort."

For interview requests with Paul Light, contact Gina Russo at 202-797-6405 or grusso@brookings.edu. For a complete version of Light?s testimony, or for additional information about any of the Center for Public Service surveys cited above, go to the Brookings website, www.brookings.edu/publicservice.