WASHINGTON — Sharing a bit of budget pain, President Barack Obama will return 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury in a show of solidarity with federal workers smarting from government-wide spending cuts.
Obama’s decision grew out of a desire to share in the sacrifice that government employees are making, a White House official said Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands of workers could be forced to take unpaid leave — known as furloughs — if Congress does not reach an agreement soon to undo the cuts.
The president is demonstrating that he will be paying a price, too, as the White House warns of dire economic consequences from the $85 billion in cuts — called a sequester — that started to hit federal programs last month after Congress failed to stop them. In the weeks since, the administration has faced repeated questions about how the White House itself will be affected. The cancellation of White House tours in particular has drawn mixed reactions.
A 5 percent cut from the president’s salary of $400,000 per year amounts to $20,000.
Obama will return a full $20,000 to the Treasury even though only a few months remain in the fiscal year, which ends in September. He will cut his first check this month, said the White House official, who was not authorized to discuss the decision publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama reported almost $790,000 in adjusted gross income in 2011, the most recent year for which their tax returns have been made public. That figure was down from the $1.7 million they brought in the year before and the $5.5 million they reported in 2009. About half of the family’s income in 2011 came from Obama’s salary, with the rest coming from book sales. The Obamas reported more than $172,000 in charitable donations.
“The salary for the president, as with members of Congress, is set by law and cannot be changed,” Obama spokesman Jay Carney said late Wednesday. “However, the president has decided that to share in the sacrifice being made by public servants across the federal government that are affected by the sequester, he will contribute a portion of his salary back to the Treasury.”
Wednesday’s notice followed a similar move a day earlier by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who committed to taking a salary cut equal to 14 days’ pay — the same level of cut that other Defense Department civilians are being forced to take. As many as 700,000 civilians will have to take one unpaid day off each week for up to 14 weeks in the coming months.
Obama isn’t the first president to give up part of his paycheck. Herbert Hoover put his salary in a separate account, then divvied it up, giving part to charity and part to employees he felt were underpaid, according to an interview he gave in 1937. John F. Kennedy donated his presidential salary to various charities, according to Stacey Chandler, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
George Washington refused pay during the latter part of his military career, according to researchers at Mount Vernon. He tried to refuse a presidential salary, but Congress required that the position pay $25,000.
Among lawmakers, Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, said Wednesday that he, too, would return part of his income to the Treasury, although he did not specify how much of his $174,000 salary he would give up. Begich said his office started furloughing staffers in mid-March and more than half of his staff will have their pay cut this year.
“This won’t solve our spending problem on its own, but I hope it is a reminder to Alaskans that I am willing to make the tough cuts, wherever they may be, to get our spending under control,” Begich said.
A number of lawmakers have from time to time taken steps to show they’re not immune as the federal government looks to tighten its belt. An aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said McConnell returns a substantial part of his salary to the Treasury every year. The Senate this month adopted by voice vote a symbolic amendment permitting — but not requiring — senators to give 20 percent of their salaries to the Treasury as part of the Democrats’ budget resolution. Also in March, as the spending cuts started bearing down, the GOP-controlled House imposed an 8.2 percent reduction on lawmakers’ personal office budgets.
The White House, after declining for weeks to provide specifics for how the president’s own staff had been affected, said Monday that 480 workers on the budget staff had been notified they may have to take days off without pay.
Carney wouldn’t say whether notices have gone out to Obama aides outside the Office of Management and Budget, including senior staff in the West Wing. But he said pay cuts remained a possibility for additional White House employees if a budget deal to undo the cuts isn’t reached.
“Everybody at the White House and the broader (executive office) is dealing with the consequences — both, in many cases, in their own personal lives, but in how we work here at the White House,” Carney said. He added that the White House also has been trying to cut costs by slowing down hiring, scaling back supply purchases, curtailing staff travel, reducing the use of air cards for mobile Internet access and reviewing contracts to look for savings.
Like lawmakers’ pay, Obama’s salary is set by law, so he must accept the funds and then write a check to the Treasury each month for the portion he plans to relinquish. Obama’s decision, first reported by The New York Times, won’t affect the other perquisites afforded the president, from a mansion staffed with servants to the limousines, helicopters and Boeing 747 jumbo jet at every U.S. president’s beck and call. The White House did not say whether Vice President Joe Biden would make a similar gesture.
The 5 percent that Obama will hand back mirrors the 5 percent cut that domestic agencies took when the reductions went into effect. The Pentagon’s budget took an 8 percent hit. Every federal agency is grappling with spending cuts, which the White House has warned could affect everything from commercial airline flights to classrooms and meat inspections.
The cuts were written into a 2011 deficit-reduction measure as a trigger to force future action. The idea was that lawmakers, eager to avert the consequences of bluntly slashing $1 trillion over a decade, would have no choice but to come together to find smarter ways to reduce federal spending.
But the two parties were at odds over whether more tax revenues were needed as part of the solution, and an intense campaign by Obama and his Cabinet to illustrate how the cuts could affect critical programs failed to spur an agreement by the March 1 deadline. As the cuts started taking effect, lawmakers turned to other issues, including an increase in the national debt ceiling, and there are no signs that a deal to undo the cuts retroactively will come anytime soon.