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Give president a raise? Not if chief doesn't deserve it

Congress is again considering the need for a pay hike. Only this time it's for someone besides themselves. Namely, the president.

The next president, that is.The president of the United States is arguably the most powerful person in the world. But the job pays only $200,000. Gosh, there was a time when you could make more running the Salt Lake Olympic Committee.

Newsday, which supports an increase, calculated that if the $25,000 salary the United States paid George Washington had kept pace with inflation, Bill Clinton would make $4.5 million a year.

There's quite a distance between the two figures, all right.

But I'm not quite ready to jump on the raise-the-salary bandwagon. I have to think about it some more.

I'm comfortable with the assertion that that's not a real high salary, considering what we pay Greg Ostertag or the chairman of a major corporation. It's paltry compared with the amount taken home by some relatively young computer entrepreneurs.

But I don't think the issue for Congress is really concern over what the president makes. I think they're afraid they won't be able to keep raising their own salaries if they reach the embarrassing point where they'd be making more than the leader of the free world.

Inflation's part of the problem. The country's shapers didn't include an automatic cost-of-living increase (and given that $4.5 million figure, aren't we glad?). But they did give cost-of-living adjustments to the veep, the chief justice and the speaker of the House, who all earn $175,400 a year. Cabinet members ($151,800) and Congressmen (currently $136,700) get them, too.

Still, that $200,000 is more than most taxpayers can imagine earning. It's the equivalent of about five times the median family income.

I could still go for it because I know that the president is expected to be "on call" at all hours. There are no real formalized days off when the president can say, "I'm turning off my beeper. If there's a problem, call Joe."

Still, I waver.

If we're talking pure salary, then we probably ought to raise it. But the president and his family have unbelievable perks that most of us will never see. We're expected to live on our median family income of $44,568 and pay for the roof over our head, our travel and utilities and food and . . .

The president doesn't have those expenses. The president's house is included in the deal. And the view from the front lawn indicates the place isn't too bad.

I was looking through real estate listings, trying to figure out what a domicile like the White House would rent for, given its prime location and property. But I finally decided the easiest way to calculate the value of that particular benefit was determined by President Clinton early in his term, when he apparently sold the right to spend the night in the White House for thousands of dollars in contributions.

Somehow, I don't think clipping coupons -- or even going to the grocery store -- is part of the first family's dining experience. Remember when a president (I'm pretty sure it was George Bush) left office and was amazed at the technology he found in the grocery store? Zippy stuff like ATM card readers.

A lot of the realities faced by most Americans would be as foreign to one of our elected leaders as dinner on Mars with the natives. The American president certainly doesn't choose a doctor based on a managed care health plan (which many Americans feel blessed to even have). I doubt if the president worries about getting pre-approval for surgery from the insurance company, either.

But the main reason I'm not sure I want to support a doubling of the salary of our top elected official is even more basic: It's a question of merit.

It's not easy to fire anyone for poor performance these days. But it's even harder to fire a bad president. And most employees don't have a four-year, no-matter-what guarantee.

In its editorial, the Newsday board concludes, "Nobody seeks the presidency for the money. And many presidents were wealthy before they took the job. (Hey, can anyone remember the last president who wasn't? I can't.) But penuriousness in compensating its top elected official is unbecoming to a nation."

Enough said. We wouldn't want to do anything that's "unbecoming."

Would we, Mr. President?

Lois Collins may be reached by e-mail at