Raising the President’s Salary

Paul C. Light

I am delighted to appear before the Subcommittee today to discuss the proposed increase in the president’s salary. As the distinguished chairman might have guessed, the president’s salary is not a subject of much scholarly activity. In fact, I know of no research of any kind of the topic. The fact is that there have been so few increases spaced at such long intervals that scholars have rightly concluded that one would be better off studying almost any other topic, however narrow. Thus, there is no literature one can draw on to make the case for or against an increase, or for that matter on whether an increase would make any difference in restoring some of the polish to a tarnished institution.

Nevertheless, I believe there are good reasons to endorse a salary increase, if only to signal that the American political system values its chief executive enough to occasionally boost the base salary. By almost any benchmark chosen, the president’s salary has lost ground over the past thirty years. The president’s current salary would put him at number 785 on the list of the 800 highest paid corporate chief executive officers, well below Walt Disney’s Michael Eisner who receives a package worth $589 million, but far ahead of Steve Jobs, who is making exactly $0 but stands to receive much more should Apple make its long turnaround. Even adding in the value of the White House lodgings, Air Force One, 24-hour security, putting green, and food, the president’s total compensation is an embarrassment. Had Congress indexed the 1969 increase to inflation, the president would already be at $915,000 or so.

While I support an increase, it is important to note that a $400,000 annual salary would put the president far ahead of just about every top job outside corporate America. Three quarters of the nation’s nonprofit executives make less than $135,000, high school principals make an average $72,400, county managers $86,700, medical school deans $201,200, marketing managers $46,000, and funeral directors $21,775. The higher the president’s salary goes on the corporate ladder, the further it moves away from the experience of ordinary America.

Ordinary America is not as sharply opposed to an increase as one might hypothesize, however. Forty-five percent of the public interviewed just two weekends ago by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press said the president should get a raise, most of whom simply felt that the president deserved more. But the numbers vary greatly depending on whether respondents know what the president currently makes. When half the Pew respondents were first told that the president’s salary has not gone up since 1969, but not that the current salary is still $200,000, 55 percent said the president should get the bump. But when the other half was only told that the current figure, the number that endorsed a raise fell to just 39 percent. (A copy of the Pew Research Center report is available at www.people-press.org.)

Despite the fact that the proposed salary increase would not apply to the current incumbent, public support for a salary increase varies with the president’s job approval. Among those who approve of President Clinton’s handling of his job as president, 55 percent approve of a pay increase; among those who disapprove, 57 percent oppose. Public support also varies with trust in government. Among those who say they trust the government “always” or “sometimes” in Washington, 55 percent approve of a pay increase; among those who say they trust the government only “sometimes” or “never,” support reverses again to 50 percent oppose.

One need not put too much weight on the hidden link between trust and pay, however, for the Pew Research Center also asked respondents why they opposed a pay increase. Only 9 percent of opponents answered that presidents are not doing a good job, compared to 54 percent who said that presidents already earn enough.

Indeed, all of the respondents, opponents and supporters alike, have a somewhat different level of increase in mind than the figure currently under consideration. Asked how large an increase should be if it is increased, almost half (48 percent) of the Pew Research Center sample say $10,000 or less, another 15 percent said $20,000, 4 percent $30,000, 12 percent $50,000, and just 9 percent endorsed $75,000. We can only surmise that there would have been virtually no support for an increase of $200,000.

In this climate of falling trust in government, the numbers are actually quite high. Americans seem to recognize that being president is one tough job, and that the occupant suffers enough already. Asked a few years ago whether they would rather be president or spend four years in jail, the majority of Americans picked jail. I do not have any data on the public’s view of being a member of this distinguished body, but I rather suspect the figures are similar.

It is important to note that the public does not question the need for an occasional increase for presidents and members of Congress. According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans believe the presidents salary should increase at least once every 10 years, and a substantial plurality endorses an increase every 2-5 years. Public support for congressional pay increases are slightly higher.

The chairman will not be surprised that I believe a presidential pay increase should be linked to other reforms currently on the congressional agenda. If the House truly wants to send a signal of its high regard for the American presidency, it might tie the presidential salary increase to a complete ban on the unregulated soft money that is doing so much to weaken public confidence in the democratic process. As we note that the chief executives of other nations make more money than the U.S. president, we must also note that few of those chief executives must go tin-cup in hand to corporate executives to raise soft money for their political parties.

Congress might also be wise to link the proposed increase to long-overdue civil service reform, including the tattered outline of the administration’s pay-for-performance proposal. It is tempting to recommend that the president’s salary increase be included in the same pay-for-performance system being designed by the Vice President. How much of the $200,000 should be tied to the same customer satisfaction measures that will affect front-line bonuses? How much to agency implementation of the Government Performance and Results Act? To some reasonable measure of shareholder value?

At a minimum, I believe a more reasonable pro quo for the quid would be a faster, slimmer presidential appointments process. There are simply too many positions to be filled, too many forms to be filed, and too many delays to surmount. The easiest way to fix the system is to cut the number of senior positions, starting with a long overdue cut in Schedule C personal and confidential assistants, many of whom are starting to burrow down into the bureaucracy in advance of the 2000 election. The White House continues to argue that every last one of the 3,000 top jobs is essential to the president’s leadership even as it defends a 25 percent vacancy rate as no real threat to government performance.

Addressing soft money while fixing the presidential appointments process would give the next president a chance to earn his or her a keep and keep his or her honor. That is the kind of pay increase every president could endorse, even ones who most certainly do not need the money.

Once increased, the question is whether to index the president’s salary to inflation. Although indexation would certainly eliminate the need for this kind of legislative conversation, I believe that the president’s salary is of sufficient import to require just this kind of hearing. We ought to occasionally ask ourselves whether our institutions are working well, how they compare to the private and nonprofit sectors, and whether we can feel confident that our chief executive measures up in the analysis. I am convinced that the president deserves a higher salary, not because he or she will need it, most certainly not because they will want it, but because the institution is worthy of a chief executive who stands slightly higher than the prevailing salaries that surround the Presidency.