Checks and Balances

Who decides how much White House staffers get paid?

The Obama White House recently released the salaries of its 487 staffers. The highest-paid administration staffer, the president’s director of public health policy, David Marcozzi, earns $193,000, while salaries bottom out at $36,000. The president himself makes $400,000, a salary set by Congress. Two advisers, Michael J. Warren and Patricia G. McGinnis, forgo pay altogether. How does the White House decide who makes what?

There’s a rough formula for how much executive branch staffers make. White House salaries are on a scale associated with certain ranks. The top rank in the White House consists of those staffers who hold the title “assistant to the president.” Twenty-two people in the Obama administration have that rank—including David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, and Jon Favreau—and they all get paid the same amount: $172,000. Marcozzi earns more than the assistants to the president because he’s on detail from the Department of Health and Human Services, which pays his salary. (After six months, “detailees” have to switch to White House payroll.) The next level below the assistants are the “deputy assistants to the president,” all of whom make between $130,000 and $150,000. Further down still are “special assistants to the president,” who earn anywhere from $50,000 to $130,000. And below that are the staff assistants, legislative assistants, press assistants, secretaries, greeters, speechwriters, advance coordinators, and record keepers—i.e., the bulk of the White House staff—who make between $40,000 and $55,000.

Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel decides, in consultation with the president, which one of these categories you fall into, according to a few former White House staffers and presidential scholars. (That said, Rahm isn’t signing your checks. That job falls to the personnel office.) There’s no rule for how many assistants a president can have: Obama has 22; George W. Bush had 18. In general, anyone with regular access to the president who is not a secretary gets an assistant title. Within each category—except the top one—there’s some salary flexibility. For example, the director for African-American media makes $13,000 more than the director for Hispanic media. Some staff assistants make $36,000, while others make $41,000.

Why the variation? Says one White House official: “White House salaries are determined based first on the funds available for salaries, then taking into account the role and the level of experience and educational background required of the individual filling that role.”

If you don’t like what you’re offered, can you negotiate a better deal? Sure, within limits. But if you get a raise, it’s usually because you advanced a rank—not because you managed to squeeze a few extra nickels out of your boss. Of course, no one works at the White House for the money. Most staffers could make triple their salary in the private sector. As a result, hard-core pay negotiations are fairly rare.

The total spending on salaries is determined by Congress, which has to approve the annual White House budget. In 2007, President Bush requested a total of $51.9 million for White House office salaries. (That’s for the core of 500 or so staffers.) The numbers creep up every year. In 2003, the maximum pay for assistants was $151,000. Since then, it has increased between 1.7 percent and 4 percent annually. In 2008, it reached $172,000 and remains there, since Obama declared a pay freeze for anyone making more than $100,000.

The White House staff wasn’t always so expensive—or expansive. Thomas Jefferson had only one messenger and one secretary, both of whom he paid out of pocket. In 1857, Congress finally allocated $2,500 to hire a single White House clerk. By the turn of the century, the White House had added a “secretary to the president,” two assistant secretaries, two executive clerks, and a stenographer. Herbert Hoover was the first president to hire a press secretary. The staff grew under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and has exploded since, adding the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Security Council, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and so on. (Some of these, like CEA and NSC, are included on the White House salary list. Others are not.)

Historian Bradley Patterson, a veteran of the Eisenhower administration who has written extensively on the White House staff, estimates there are about now 5,700 people in the “White House staff family,” including residence staff, Secret Service details, Camp David employees, Air Force One crew, and so on. Add all the other offices connected to the White House—Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of National Drug Control Policy—and Patterson estimates the total cost of salaries at a whopping $1.6 billion.