Pay for public service

THE American public is being asked to underwrite $150 million more a year in salary raises for the top 3,037 government officials - vice-president, Cabinet officers, appellate court judges, federal agency chiefs, and members of the House and Senate. Now, the American public is hardly cheap. It wants to be fair. It can see there should be some equivalency between, say, the earnings of judges and the young lawyers who plead before them, or between the income of members of Congress and leaders of the business and educational institutions back home.

Washington is an expensive place to live. Elected officials must often maintain two residences. Current salaries of $77,400 for House members, sad to say, can be almost hardship wages when college tuitions and other expenses are taken into account. Legislators haven't much of a leg up on high school principals in the Boston suburbs, who can make $60,000 a year. The vice-president now earns $100,800; Cabinet officers, $88,800; circuit court of appeals judges, $85,700; and administrators like the director of the Congressional Budget Office, $75,800. Under a new presidential advisory commission proposal, which would take effect next year unless the President or Congress interceded, the federal pay scale would advance substantially: $175,000 for vice-president, speaker of the House, and chief justice; $165,000 for associate justices; $160,00 for Cabinet officers; $135,00 for senators, members of the House, and appeals judges; and $130,000 for top administrators. Absent an annual escalator clause for federal pay, this raise will likely have to do for a while, and so appears justified.

Some assumptions about the pay raise should be questioned, however.

First, why fear losing public officials to the private sector? It may be good for public officials to spend only a limited period in public office. Many cash in smartly when they exit: White House spokesman Larry Speakes is reportedly set to earn $250,000 when he takes a position in January with a New York financial services firm. For many, work in the federal bureaucracy is like time spent earning an advanced degree.

Even at current wages, no dearth of candidates for public office has appeared. Particularly in the House, where 9 out of ten members are returned to office every two years, elected officials are not falling all over themselves in a rush for the door. True, many take on outside speaking assignments for extra cash - as do athletes and other media personalities.

The argument about attracting and keeping good people in government appears stronger for judicial than for elective and administrative posts. Even so, many candidates for the courts have already earned enough in private practice to tide them through a bench career.

And whatever happened to the notion of public service? The goal of good government is hardly to pay top officials top salaries - not when the government they run is deep in the red and the wage scale of many Americans is declining.

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