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Pay Trumps No Pay

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Benjamin Deitchman
June 23, 2017

Today a senior staff member in a critically important national institution with a college degree works full time without a salary. This is apparently an acceptable state of affairs because as the owner of a profitable brand, the daughter of a billionaire and the wife of another wealthy real estate scion, Ivanka Trump can feed her family without an additional five or six figures of income from her federal government job. For Ms. Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who also works in the White House without pay, this government labor is a voluntary avocation. Serving the public certainly ought to be about much more than just a paycheck. Careers in government, however, have a real benefit to society and deserve fair salaries for hardworking individuals. The public relations image of Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner earning taxpayer dollars might have been unfavorable for them, but their forgoing of salaries devalues the work of public administrators and makes the public service appear as a bastion of privilege rather than in its rightful place as a vocation for all.

Deitchman June ImageSalaries for Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner need to be commensurate with experience. Mr. Kushner’s qualifications, particularly considering his expansive portfolio of critical policy domains, are not extensive. That lack of previous service in government or public policy related areas, however, still does not justify a situation where there ought to be zero remuneration. The government, corporations or any other organizations should generally not “hire” unpaid interns doing yeoman tasks in windowless offices or unpaid senior advisors to the chief executive. If someone is providing value through his or her talents to a full-time endeavor then it is only appropriate to compensate that person. If the work is not valuable enough to merit payment, then perhaps President Donald Trump, with his signature “you’re fired” catchphrase from The Apprentice, should question whether his administration needs the labor of his daughter and son-in-law.

Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner clearly find themselves in their unpaid positions of power due to their familial relationship with President Trump, but that does not justify non-compensation. The First Lady of the United States oversees a paid staff and handles a variety of official responsibilities as the spouse to the Head of State. The previous First Lady, Michelle Obama, led important initiatives for American children, such as the “Let’s Move” campaign. As is the case for the current First Lady, and all their predecessors, there has never been a direct salary for this work. If the nation is going to demand specific tasks of the companion of the president, then taxpayers ought to offer him or her a salary. Even members of the British Royal Family earn payment from the government for carrying out the hereditary requirements of their noble titles and offices.

One of the concerns of the Trump presidency is the wealth the family will accumulate because of the election through alleged emoluments, as well as insider dealings, pay-for-play transactions and free publicity. Thus, Ms. Trump’s and Mr. Kushner’s White House experience may prove lucrative even without a direct payment for employment. Forgoing a salary because there are other avenues for profit poses myriad ethical concerns with a revolving door that potentially harms the greater public interest. A fair salary would not resolve those challenges, but public service ought not to be pit stop merely to enhance a personal brand or build the resume of a future lobbyist.

The extremely wealthy are welcome to donate their entire employment income, after taxes, to charitable causes or back into the public treasury, such as President Trump has promised with his $400,000 per year. It is wonderful for Ms. Trump and Mr. Kushner that they were born into such financial prosperity and have expanded their inherited wealth. To have a diverse, equitable and professional public service to improve democracy, benefit the citizenry, and protect natural, human and economic resources, however, government needs to pay its employees. Political leaders ought to inspire and provide fair treatment for their hardworking employees, recruiting the best and the brightest. Not paying some of the most powerful staff members, no matter the circumstances, is to the detriment of the millions of civil servants who need, and deserve, a regular paycheck.

Not paying Ms. Trump, Mr. Kushner or various other extremely wealthy member of the Trump Administration is hardly the most controversial or important issue of this presidency. In a multi-trillion dollar federal budget, tens of thousands of dollars in salaries are barely rounding errors, but today’s world is one where Women Who Work, as Ms. Trump titled her recent book, and men who work are more than justified in earning reasonable compensation. The citizens, residents and taxpayers of the U.S. deserve full professionals rather than unpaid amateurs. There are sacrifices to public service, but they need not be one’s entire full time employment income.


Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is a policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. His recently published book is Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications. Dr. Deitchman’s email is [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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