Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel set the tone for what should become a widespread trend, if there’s any real justice to be spotted in the midst of budget sequestration.
Sequestration – which prompts automatic budget cuts – was set in motion by Congress’ refusal to compromise on federal constraints. The administration caved in and agreed to a number of trims, even suggesting Social Security cost-of-living increases and other entitlements might be on the table, but it still wanted additional revenue sources through small tax hikes on the upper echelon and certain behemoth corporations. The House, in its persistent loyalty to the tea party and the ultra-wealthy, refused to give an inch. And thus, many federal employees will be subjected to two weeks of furloughs by the end of the year.
In solidarity with their furloughed civilian employees, Hagel said he and Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter will return a proportionate share of their own salaries to federal coffers. President Obama responded by cutting his own pay 5 percent for 2013. Since his salary can’t be changed during a term, he’ll be cutting a check to the government. Then, Secretary of State John Kerry followed suit.
Opponents of Obama – and by extension, anyone in his cabinet – will decry the pay cuts as publicity stunts, though it’ll do them little good: Obama can’t seek another term and Hagel will likely leave his job when Obama does. And they will rightly point out that Obama is unlikely to miss 5 percent of his $400,000 salary. However, the detractors have to tread carefully, because those in the upper 1 percent Congress has been protecting have claimed they can’t make ends meet if an even smaller portion of their incomes were taken through tax hikes.
Whatever motive is attributed to Hagel’s and Obama’s action, the symbolic gesture of “shared sacrifice” should make the lasting impression. Though Obama’s salary is considerable, how many of us could afford a $20,000 pay cut without resorting to public assistance? And how many of us are donating about 22 percent of our adjusted gross incomes to charity? That’s what the Obamas did in 2011 (the last year for which figures are available), starting with an adjusted gross income of $789,674. And while that’s an enormous sum to most of us in the Cherokee County workforce, it’s nary a drop in the bucket for the much-ballyhooed and zealously protected upper 1 percent, who are statistically known for their lack of sharing with the less fortunate.
Pundits like Sean Hannity are scoffing and insisting the president’s vacations to Hawaii in Florida suggest he’s out of touch with the suffering most of us must endure. But Hannity, like other disingenuous public figures of his ilk, never mentions George W. Bush’s perpetual cycle of vacations, though his liberal counterparts did so back in the day (and are perhaps silent now). Either way, few talking heads ever offer to do anything for their fellow Americans, unless spewing venom and crowing half-truths counts for “anything.”
But they’re private citizens, after all, and can thus feel more self-righteous about their stinginess. That’s not exactly the case for those on the taxpayer teat.
If Hagel and Obama can sacrifice a portion of their income to assuage their guilt over the sequester, then so should the members of Congress, Vice President Joe Biden, and all the other “public servants” who populate the Beltway and fortuitously escaped the furlough. Each member of Congress pulls in a minimum of $174,000 per year, and that’s not including benefits and other perks, or the weighty stipends for their leaders. It’s no stretch to suggest the delegates who actually deserve their salaries comprise a percentage far smaller than Obama’s pay cut.
Are any of them offering to share the sacrifice they expect from other Americans? So far, we’ve heard only crickets chirping. That’s about what we’ve come to expect from Capitol Hill when it comes to doing what’s right.