Why presidents should take a salary

Why presidents should take a salary November 18, 2016

Donald Trump, rich guy that he is, has said that he will not take the $400,000 salary that comes with the presidency.  Instead, he will just take $1.  George Washington made the same pledge to serve without a salary, but the new Congress insisted that he take it.  It turns out, the Founders had good reasons for providing that public officials, including the president, be paid. Not only does it open public service to citizens who are not wealthy, it establishes who is the boss.

Read Rob Goodman’s fascinating survey of the issue after the jump.

From Rob Goodman, Why Donald Trump Needs to Take a Salary – POLITICO Magazine:

In his first interview as president-elect, Donald Trump pledged that he will accept as little of the presidential salary as he can get away with. “I think I have to by law take $1, so I’ll take $1 a year,” he told CBS’s Leslie Stahl. “$400,000 you’re giving up,” she responded, as if this were some sort of public-spirited sacrifice.

It is anything but a sacrifice. The precedent of insisting that the president accept a salary—not in his interest, but in the public interest—is as old as the first Congress, even older. The American framers considered payment of the presidential salary an important duty under the Constitution, and the principle that moved them then matters just as much as it ever did: It confirms that the president serves the public, and not the other way around. If the Founders’ reasons were good enough to persuade George Washington, our first independently wealthy president, they should be good enough for Donald Trump.

If we remember Washington’s 1789 inaugural address for anything today, it’s probably for the halting and soft-spoken delivery that surprised some of its audience. But we generally forget that a promise at the very end made quite a bit of news in its day. Washington had declined a salary as commander of the revolutionary army (though he did have a lavish expense account). Now, he announced that he would continue that tradition and once again serve for free. As a general, Washington said, “the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation.” Since then, he went on, “from this resolution I have in no instance departed. And being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself, any share in the personal emoluments … for the Executive Department.”

In this, Washington was voicing one of the more high-minded ideals in the republican tradition: that service to a republic is its own reward, and that citizens should suspect anyone who seeks public office for financial motives. And yet, he was also claiming that part of the Constitution was, already, “inapplicable” to himself. In fact, the Constitution’s framers had debated and rejected a proposal that the president serve without pay. Alexander Hamilton explained the reasoning in Federalist 73: “a power over a man’s support is a power over his will.” A president who could not depend on a regular salary might be subject to corruption, to coercion by the members of Congress who held the purse-strings, or to the temptation to sell policy to the highest bidder. For the same reason, it was essential that the president’s livelihood be insulated from day-to-day politics. Congress was given the power to set and change the president’s salary by statute, but not to meddle with the salary of a sitting president. The Constitution dictated a fixed payment for his entire period in office, so that Congress “can neither weaken his fortitude by operating on his necessities, nor corrupt his integrity by appealing to his avarice.”

Yet those arguments seem to assume a president needy enough to sell out the public interest for profit. Do they still apply to a president who claims to be both independently wealthy and free from greed, someone who purports to be above “necessities” and “avarice”? Washington seemed to believe that they did not. But here again, the Federalist anticipated him: “There are men who could neither be distressed nor won into a sacrifice of their duty; but this stern virtue is the growth of few soils.” In other words, it is a terrible idea to write a Constitution as if all future presidents will be Washingtons.

For these reasons, the first Congress refused Washington’s offer to serve without payand in doing so, consciously set a precedent for the future. It did not want to risk that Washington’s refusal would become the norm rather than the exception. As representative John Page of Virginia put it, “the Constitution requires that he shall receive a compensation, and it is our duty to provide it.” Note that Congress did not try to evade the spirit of the Constitution by providing him a token salary. Congress voted Washington an annual salary of $25,000; the president backed down and accepted the payment. It was an implicit recognition that future presidents could be corruptible, and should be bound to the public interest as tightly as possible.

Two important principles flowed from that move. First, in ensuring the president a livelihood in office, and in safeguarding a president of ordinary means from the temptation to sell out, it opened the highest public office—at least in possibility—to those who were not independently wealthy. Second, in minimizing future presidents’ need to rely on outside sources of income, it confirmed that the president would be a true public servant, beholden to the people who elected him. . . .



That, in turn, means that you should want Donald Trump to get his $400,000. He’s still free to donate it all to charity, as two of his predecessors have done. But he should take our money all the same, just like every president from Washington on. The reasoning behind the presidential salary has evolved since those days, but some truths hold every bit as strongly. Among them: We are beholden to the people who pay us. In Hamilton’s words, “he who pays is the master.”

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