A Presidential Salary FAQ

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 3 2001 4:42 PM

A Presidential Salary FAQ

What's the nicest thing Bill Clinton has done for George W. Bush?

1) Decided not to leave a whoope cushion on the chair in the Oval Office. 2) Doubled his salary. In September 1999, Clinton signed legislation to raise the president's annual compensation from $200,000--its level since 1969--to $400,000. It was a gift to future presidents that Clinton couldn't benefit from (unless Hillary gets elected). Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides for the president to get paid but not to get a raise while he is serving a given term: "The President shall, at stated times receive for his services, a compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected ..."

How many times has the president gotten a raise?

The latest, which goes into effect this year, is the fifth. There is no mechanism to automatically adjust the president's salary; Congress must pass legislation authorizing it. In 1789, George Washington got paid $25,000 a year. In 1873, that went up to $50,000 for the second term of Ulysses S. Grant. In 1909, William Howard Taft got $75,000. In 1949, Harry Truman received $100,000. And in 1969 Richard Nixon got $200,000.

What would those salaries be in today's dollars?

So nice of the Congressional Research Service to answer that question. Because of the difficulty in coming up with a consumer price index for 1789, estimates of Washington's salary in current dollars run from $245,00 to $4 million. It wasn't as good a deal as it looks. Washington was not provided with the perks of a modern president. He used his salary and dipped into his personal finances for official duties. As for the subsequent salaries, $50,000 in 1873 would be about $678,000 today; $75,000 in 1909 would be $1.36 million; $100,000 in 1949 would be $685,000; and $200,000 in 1969 would be about $900,000 today. (Do-it-yourselfers can use this inflation conversion Web site to plug in various years and dollar figures.)

Does the president get an expense account?

Yes. Since 1949 a $50,000 annual expense account for official purposes has been provided. Although the president's salary is taxable, this expense account isn't. Since the president doesn't need cab fare, it most commonly gets used to host meetings that don't fall within the budget of another federal department or agency. The unused portion is returned to the Treasury Department.

Does the president pay for his own personal expenses?

Yes. If the president asks for doughnuts in the private quarters, he's supposed to pick up the tab as he is for his dry cleaning and other personal needs.

What does the vice president get paid?

Last year, $181,400; this year it will be $186,300. The vice president's salary is decided separately from that of the president. Since passage of a 1989 government salary reform act, the vice president's salary has been the same as the chief justice of the United States and the speaker of the House.

Is the vice president's salary a fixed percentage of the president's?

No, but historically it's run from between 20 to 30 percent of the president's salary. But in recent years, it has come to within almost 90 percent of the president's because the vice president, along with other federal employees, has gotten an automatic cost of living adjustment that was put into place with that 1989 reform. (Note to federal employees: Yes, Explainer knows Congress has occasionally blocked the increase and that you're all vastly underpaid and would be making more than $1 million a year if you went into the private sector.) The latest presidential raise will make the vice president's salary about 46.5 percent of the president's. If the president hadn't gotten the increase, the continuing cost of living adjustments would have had the vice president's pay overtake the president's in 2004.

While you're at it, what do members of the Cabinet and members of Congress make?

With the automatic cost of living adjustment and the increase in federal salaries Clinton also signed into law in 1999, Cabinet secretaries will make $161,200 this year, as will the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate and the president pro tempore of the Senate. Senators and representatives will make $145,100.

Why was this Cabinet raise a good thing for Clinton?

Because his annual pension (presidents started receiving pensions in 1958) is equal to that of a Cabinet secretary's salary.

What is the vice president's pension?

That's more complicated. Unlike the president, the vice president is not automatically entitled to a set amount upon leaving office. Since the vice president is president of the Senate, his pension is the same as for other members of Congress. Generically speaking, vice presidents and members get a retirement that is a percentage of their salary based on length of service--with a minimum of five years to qualify. The amount is also phased in based on age, with the phase-in beginning at 55 or 57, depending on whether a member was elected before 1984, when the old civil service pension system was replaced. Congress has only had fixed annual salaries since 1856--the first one was $3,000--prior to that they were paid per diem.

If Bush decided not to get sworn in but to go peddle jeans and khakis instead, how much would he make?

According to Forbes, the chief executive officer of the Gap, Millard Drexler, got a compensation package of $173 million in the last fiscal year.

Explainer thanks Sharon Gressle of the Congressional Research Service.

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