Modest Government Salaries in Perspective

President Obama's comments about the "relatively modest pay" earned by Robert Gibbs and other high level government workers may be a bit tone deaf. But they're right.

James Warren mocks the notion that Robert Gibbs and other high level government workers receive, in President Obama’s words, “relatively modest pay.”

In fact, he earns $172,200 in a nation where the average family income hovers around $55,000, unemployment is high, record foreclosures persist and wages for most folks are at best stagnant.

Sure.  And perhaps Obama’s usual cautiousness should have prompted a different word choice.  But, of course, when he said “relatively” he didn’t mean “relative to the Average Schmo” buy “relative to what he could be commanding in the private sector.”   Which, Warren readily concedes, is a hell of a lot more than $172,200.

It’s a world in which a one-hour appearance can bring more than many Americans earn in a year, with the elite in the roughly $50,000 to $75,000 range. You offer a few benign inside anecdotes, take some questions and then get taken back by limo to the airport and a seat in first-class (assuming your deal doesn’t include a private jet, as is the case for some journalists I know).

For sure, working at a high level in the capital brings contact with many who exit government to rake in huge sums. It’s why so few high-ranking Senate and House members return home after retirement or defeat. There’s just too much money to be made in Washington, often as a shameless influence peddler.

So, yes, as Warren puts it, “a former Chicago community organizer might have edited himself just a bit better in suggesting that a loyal lieutenant is a portrait in financial sacrifice.”  But, in fact, working ridiculously long hours under constant public scrutiny for an annual salary of roughly what one could earn in three hours of speechifying actually is a portrait in financial sacrifice.

But the average American will no doubt have Warren’s reaction to the notion.   Back in my teaching days, I had little success convincing college students in rural Alabama that a Congressman making $174,000 (or, whatever the going rate was back then) was not only not “rich” but actually taking a financial hit.   Because that amount of money was unfathomable to them, the notion that almost anyone electable to Congress could easily earn multiples of that struck them as ludicrous.   And, in a location where the mortgage on a very nice house was less than $700 a month, the idea that it would be hard to both maintain a residence in DC and a home back in the district on a Congressman’s salary seemed absurd.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. In general, I don’t think most Americans are going to be sympathetic to these arguments. Not only because the salary amounts, while less than what might be earned in the private sector, are nonetheless paid for by taxpayer dollars.

  2. reid says:

    Oh, I think they’ll be sympathetic. Even the president makes squat compared to sports stars, music stars, actors, CEOs, etc. Most people aren’t that spun up about taxpayer dollars that they’ll begrudge decent salaries. If they were several times higher it’d be different. (Just my guess, of course.)

  3. epistorese says:

    Frankly, I agree that Robert Gibbs’ salary, compared to what he might make in private industry is modest. I only wish that more executives were willing to “struggle by” on salaries (including bonuses) that are close enough to wave at such “modesty.” And no, he doesn’t need a raise, even if he may deserve one. If he wants a raise, he can whore himself out like everyone else in DC does.

  4. Steve says:

    Let’s be real on the “low pay”. Think of a senior White House position more like an internship. The payout comes in the “after the White House” opportunities. Gibbs will make the proverbial “boatload of cash” after he leaves.

  5. PD Shaw says:

    There are some that are taking a financial hit working for the government, some who think they are, and other’s who couldn’t make money any other way.

    Exhibit A: Carol Mosley Braun:

  6. John425 says:

    What a joke! The Founding Fathers pledged their fortunes, their lives… Somehow that got elevated into politicians earning a fat living. Can’t Obama find a competent Press Secretary for say, $110K or $130K? Where is the Obama White House’s “skin in the game”?

  7. Lipoton says:

    Mataconis’s point that these are taxpayers paying for these salaries is a good one.

    Additionally, most people realize that the real pay comes after the public ‘service,’ knowing that they will cash in later on their ‘leadership.’ It’s not really taking a hit, because of the immense prestige that enables them to then work as lobbyists or with corporations to then milk the system.

    It’s not a financial hit, rather that ‘public service’ is really just apprenticeship for returning to bigger dough in the private sector. Work the system to benefit your corporate buddies, then return to the same business and just kill.

  8. Herb says:

    What a strange debate to have two press secretaries removed from Tony Snow. Here was a guy who gave up tremendous earning opportunities to work for Bush and when he resigned, he made no bones about the fact that he was doing it for financial reasons. I also don’t recall many taxpayers complaining that Tony Snow was overpaid.

    Similar complaints about Gibbs seems to be more about partisan gamesmanship than a genuine debate about what constitutes the proper salary for the White House press secretary.

  9. john personna says:

    “Multiples?” There are web apps that will take a salary and spit back a percentile rank among wage earners. There will be a few people at multiples, but I think they bring a higher skillset than the average congress critter.

    No, congress attracts the sort of apparatchcik who uses it as his path to “multiples”

  10. john personna says:

    (You’ve seen the stats how congressmen are massively lucky with their blind trusts.)

  11. I understand the argument that these salaries are relatively modest. But as Instapundit points out (, when the Obama administration is calling couples earning $250k a year rich on one day and then calling these kinds of salaries (for individuals) relatively modest on another, it really does sound like a “what’s true for the goose isn’t true for the gander” kind of issue.

  12. Herb says:

    “when the Obama administration is calling couples earning $250k a year rich on one day and then calling these kinds of salaries (for individuals) relatively modest on another,”

    Hmmm….yeah, I can see that interpretation is valid….for a person with a poor understanding of the word “relatively.”