Saturday, December 29, 2007

George Washington's Salary as President


When George Washington took the oath of office as president on April 30, 1789, technically he had no salary. The House and Senate had not assembled sufficient members to form quorums until April 1 and April 6, respectively, and had passed no law setting the president’s salary.

In his First Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789, Washington announced his intention not to accept any salary or other remuneration for serving as president:
To the foregoing observations I have one to add, which will be most properly addressed to the House of Representatives. It concerns myself, and will therefore be as brief as possible. When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. 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 which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department, and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the station in which I am placed may during my continuance in it be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.

Washington’s statement renewed a debate that dated back at least to ancient Athens, where Pericles introduced payment for the Council of 500 and jury service in about 450 B.C. In the American context, however, the arguments also assumed a constitutional dimension. Article II, Section 1, Clause 7 specifically addressed the issue of presidential compensation:
The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be encreased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.

When the House began debate on a salary bill, Rep. John Page of Virginia said flatly, “[T]he constitution requires that he [the president] shall receive a compensation, and it is our duty to provide it.”

This position had substantial merit. The language of the clause included the mandatory “shall.” Moreover, as the late David Currie observed, other considerations pointed in the same direction:
If the constitutional premise was that financial independence was a crucial barrier to corruption, an officer who impoverished himself by declining his wages endangered the public interest. Moreover, if Washington was right that he need not accept this money, there would always be a risk that the President’s waiver was not truly voluntary; reading the Constitution to mean what it said would obviate the need for inquiry on this unpromising score.

This position ultimately prevailed. The Act passed by Congress granted the president an annual salary, and President Washington agreed to accept it.

At the same time, there was also a debate concerned the form of the president’s compensation. The House committee appointed to consider the issue apparently proposed a fixed salary of $20,000 plus an allowance for specified expenses, such as house rent, furniture, plate, horses, carriage and salaries for secretaries and clerks.

However, when the matter came up for debate before the House, a number of members expressed constitutional concerns. Some suggested that the allowance might be a forbidden “emolument,” and/or that it would undercut the independence of the Executive, because the president would have to justify, and Congress would have to pass on, each request to draw on the allowance:
Mr. LAWRENCE [sic, John Laurance of New York] . . . [stated that] it ought to be granted as one sum, because he is to receive no other emolument whatever from the United States . . . . but I have no objection to blend these sums together, declaring the whole to be the compensation required by the constitution . . ..

Mr. [Roger] SHERMAN [of Connecticut] thought it much better to give a net sum, because the President would then have no accounts to settle with the United States.

Mr. [Theodore] SEDGWICK [of Massachusetts] considered this a constitutional question, and therefore thought it deserved serious investigation. The provision made in the report, for paying the expenses of enumerated articles, does not leave the President in the situation intended by the constitution, which was, that he should be independent of the Legislature, during his continuance in office; that he should have a compensation for his services, not to be increased or diminished during that period; but there is nothing that will prevent us from making further allowances, provided that the twenty thousand dollars is all that is given as a compensation. From these considerations, he was led to believe that the report was founded on unconstitutional principles.

Others – including James Madison – disagreed:
Mr. MADISON did not think the report interfered with either the spirit or letter of the constitution, and therefore was opposed to any alteration, especially with respect to the property of a fixed nature. He was sure, if the furniture and plate, and house rent, could be allowed, some of the other articles might also. The horses and carriages will cost money, and sell for little, after being used for four years; this will be a certain loss to the President, or his family . . ..


In the end, however, the House decided to avoid the difficult issue by eliminating the allowance provision. It then voted to increase the fixed salary from $20,000 to $25,000. The statute was finally enacted on September 24, 1789 – almost five months after Washington took office – and provided fixed salaries for both the president and vice president:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there shall be allowed to the President of the United States, at the rate of twenty-five thousand dollars, with the use of the furniture and other effects, now in his possession, belonging to the United States; and to the Vice President, at the rate of five thousand dollars per annum, in full compensation for their respective services, to commence with the time of their entering on the duties of their offices respectively, and to continue so long as they shall remain in office, and to be paid quarterly out of the treasury of the United States.

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