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Americans tepid on raising president's pay

Idea has bipartisan support in Congress, but public factors in

Derek Aitken, freshly graduated from law school and enjoying a tour of the United States Capitol, is already thinking like a politician.

Let's give the president a raise, he says. After all, every president for the past 30 years has earned the same salary: $200,000.

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But Mr. Aitken's suggestion of $350,000 or $400,000 stuns his friend, who shoots back: "Are you kidding me? He gets everything for free!"

These divergent views reflect Americans' ambivalence over a proposal, now under consideration in Congress, to double the president's annual salary to $400,000. Though the pay raise wouldn't take effect until the next chief executive enters the Oval Office, it would take a certain amount of courage - or chutzpah - for lawmakers to defy the will of the public heading into an election year.

And so far, the public disapproves of the idea.

It's not that Americans are stingy. Only 39 percent oppose outright any pay raise for the next president, according to a May poll by the Pew Research Center. But as soon as they learn exactly how much he earns, and that he also gets housing and travel expenses, 55 percent oppose it.

Any raise, the poll also suggests, should not be of the size Congress is considering. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say the salary should be increased by $20,000 or less.

"I don't think the selling job has been done," says Kenneth Duberstein, former chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, at a May 24 congressional hearing on the subject.

But Mr. Duberstein, along with six Democratic and Republican presidential aides from every administration since Kennedy, argued that future presidential paychecks should be much bigger. They unanimously proposed a cool half a million for the winner in 2000 and beyond.

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ARGUMENTS for a fatter salary are numerous. At the state level, the pay for many of America's governors increased three- and four-fold over the past 30 years. In the past two years, at least 23 governors got raises, though the governor in the highest paying state - California, at $165,000 - still falls short of President Clinton's earnings.

The raises have in part been recommended by independent review boards, a growing trend in determining pay for state legislators and governors.

Many argue that the president's job and budget have changed over time. Back in 1969, when Richard Nixon was in the Oval Office and presidential pay jumped from $100,000 to its current $200,000, there were no 24-hour cable news channels and no Internet, and, consequently, no 24-hour presidency.

The cost of living, in the meantime, has increased substantially. According to the American Compensation Association, a $200,000 salary in 1969, adjusted for inflation, would be about $935,000 today. Tuition, room, and board at Stanford University, where the Clintons have

enrolled their daughter, Chelsea, costs $29,879 a year. In 1969 dollars, that would have been $6,520.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, meanwhile, was still below 1000 three decades ago. Today, it's over 10000, amounting to cash compensation of $1 million to $7.9 million for leaders of America's private sector.

"The opportunity costs [of being president] are high. They are increasing," said Mack McLarty, Mr. Clinton's first chief of staff, at the congressional hearings.

But none of this impresses Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, a watchdog group that opposes a presidential pay raise. "The president does not need more money, except to pay legal bills," he said in congressional testimony.

Indeed, taxpayers cover the president's housing, his cleaning and cooking service, his transport and security needs. He receives an annual travel allowance of $100,000 and an expense allowance of $50,000. At retirement, he gets an annual pension of $150,000, a taxpayer-paid office staff and travel expenses.

But federal lawmakers, compensation experts, and former presidential aides have one more concern: the downward pressure that a de facto cap on the Oval Office salary could put on the pay of other US government employees. If the next president gets no raise, for instance, then the pay of the vice president, chief justice, and Speaker of the House - who have all enjoyed cost-of-living adjustments in the meantime - will surpass that of the nation's new chief executive for the first time in American history.

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