Corporate America to Congress: In Your Face!

It’s not really clear whether there’s any kind of widespread outrage over how lavishly chief executives are compensated these days, but the issue has been getting more and more play in the business press. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a great front-page story about how much cushier executive retirement plans have gotten, even as pensions and other retirement benefits for everyone else have been squeezed. And Fortune recently put a broader look at the issue on its cover under the headline “The Great CEO Pay Heist.” 

Let’s say Joe Shareholder is as angry as he ought to be about this stuff. Is corporate America nervous of a backlash taking the form of government scrutiny, or even government action? One answer to that comes up in a passing comment made in one of the Fortune stories. The magazine got several honchos and board members to speak candidly—but under cover of anonymity—about CEO pay, and most agreed that it’s out of control. So what can be done? One speaker is identified as “a well-paid CEO” of a big company who “has served on several big-time boards,” and in the article’s most amusing aside, this executive dismisses out of hand the possibility that any sort of regulation could help: “The Government isn’t going to change anything,” this person comments, adding breezily, “When you’ve got some smart lawyer like Marty Lipton”—one of the two or three legendarily bad-ass corporate attorneys of our time—”working against two members of Congress from Illinois, it’s no contest.”

In your face, Congress! I love this precisely because it’s such a throw-away remark, underscoring that the superiority of Corporate America and its hired guns over the government is so obvious that it’s not even worth discussing. It’s a nice illustration of the power of the CEO ego, which of course is one of the things that’s fueled the executive-pay explosion in the first place. In a sense, even politicians seem to go along with this formulation, lapping it up when they’re compared to CEOs.

In any case, it seems that perhaps the constituency that has most fervently embraced the chief executive worship of recent years is the chief executive class itself. And at the moment, at least, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything on the horizon to prove them wrong, let alone force any sort of change in how they’re compensated.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and there really is significant outrage mounting out there that will gather steam and eventually be felt in the executive suite, one way or the other. Yo, Illinois congressional delegation—are you just gonna sit there and take it?