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Exec Pay Shouldn't Be Hostage to Congress

June 27, 1989|MARK E. BUCHMAN | Mark E. Buchman, a merchant banker in Century City, was president of the Government National Mortgage Assn. (Ginnie Mae) during the Reagan Administration. and

The February brouhaha over the pay bill is now history. The current bloodletting in the House may have run its course with Jim Wright and Tony Coelho. The good work done by the Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries has gone for naught, mainly because its recommendation was so misunderstood by the public--and Congress wouldn't face up to the issue.

We now see many examples in the Bush Administration where qualified candidates will not take or can not keep appointments and where existing officials are leaving prematurely to escape onerous employment conditions. Just last week, H. Robert Heller, a Federal Reserve governor, announced that he would resign, saying he would have been able to stay had Congress approved a pay raise for top government officials.

Pay, of course, is not the entire problem or answer. Many non-financial factors are involved: challenge, sense of duty and service, the excitement and tremendous satisfaction of participating in a policy position in government, the knowledge and contacts gained--these are but a few of the rewards.

Unless we want top federal officials coming just from the wealthier classes of our society, we'd better face up to some real problems. Correcting the salary scale for senior executive service would be an excellent starter. Right now a huge financial sacrifice is involved in going to Washington, one of America's most costly places to live. I know because I've done it. A respectable salary level should be determined, one that at least doesn't involve outright financial losses. There probably always will be, and maybe should be, a differential between public and private pay scales, due to the other beneficial factors already mentioned. But the gross discrepancies existing at present only exacerbate ethical and other temptations.

A key element to the solution is to break the lock Congress has over the salary structure of the two other parts of government, the executive and the judiciary. Let Congress muck around with its own salary structure and be answerable to the electorate. But it is scandalous to hold others hostage to the politics of Congress' grandstanding before the voters. Congressmen should be well paid and not be permitted to accept any outside income (just as executive branch officials are not now permitted to receive any outside direct income).

There are many other considerable impediments to government service: the voluminous forms to fill out, requiring days of work; the confirmation process itself, often drawn out and demeaning to the nominee and his or her family; restrictions on post-government employment (not applicable to members of Congress, even though they make the rules); virtually total public disclosure of one's financial situation and loss of much of the privacy we normally enjoy.

It is said you get what you pay for. In most cases inour society, the men and women best suited to run our government are largely turned off by the many disincentives of coming to Washington. Let's at least address the pay problem with our eyes open and false rhetoric contained.

Would Mr. Smith go to Washington now?

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