Presidents could give away their salaries
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was asked recently if he would refuse a salary if elected. Technically, there is no leniency in the matter as the Constitution mandates the president receive compensation. A more accurate and interesting question is whether a President Romney — or any president — should donate his salary.

In answering this question, it is helpful to examine the original intent of the Founders.

Conventional wisdom suggests the drafters of the U.S. Constitution included the requirement for presidential pay so as to enable rich and poor alike to be able to serve. Such rationale could be used to emphasize the values of public service and democracy while simultaneously shunning plutocratic or wealth-based, aristocratic forms of governance.

Yet while this early version of the eventual American dream was a deciding factor in determining presidential compensation, it appears to have been a secondary concern. The primary culprit was bribery.

Congress and the Founding Fathers were aware of the habit of the king of Great Britain to bribe officials and to be in turn bribed by Parliament. Closer to home, early colonial governors routinely vetoed legislation that could not be overturned. Colonial lawmakers who held the purse strings leveraged its power to cater to gubernatorial desires for fixed salaries. Bribery came to be utilized on both sides of the pond.

But what relevance do these trips down history lane have on contemporary presidential salaries?

It is hard to imagine the Founders could have conceived the enormous wealth of those who would eventually toe the line for the White House (President Barack Obama is worth upwards of $8 million and estimates of Romney's net worth exceed $250 million). Nor would they likely be pleased by a recent Judicial Watch poll revealing 88 percent of registered voters "believe corruption is a significant problem in Washington."

Very likely, modern presidents could give away their entire salaries and still be thought of as corrupt.

Therefore, if bribery is unnecessary, money is abundant, and allegations of corruption are inevitable, why not donate presidential wages?

Although Romney would not be the first president to give away his salary (Presidents Herbert Hoover and John F. Kennedy did so), round-the-clock media coverage could potentially create pressure for future presidents to do likewise. And as attractive as it may appear for presidents to donate their salaries, such precedent-setting actions could include other potential drawbacks.

In particular, the causes to which the salaries would be donated could be used by opponents for political gain. For example, consider the uproar that would be associated with a potential $400,000 Obama family donation to Planned Parenthood — or a $400,000 Romney family donation to the National Rifle Association.

The associated media scrutiny would be so intense the result could hardly be other than to exacerbate the troubling rise in partisanship we see manifest in progressively vitriolic rhetoric and a constantly deadlocked Congress.

Unless.

Presidents could adopt a threefold giving strategy to mitigate negative consequences. First, to avoid setting precedent harmful to lower-net worth presidents, emphasis should be placed on the "fortunate" or "blessed" financial situation of the first families. Second, to refrain from using donations for political gain, only non-political individuals (i.e., not the presidents or their staffs) should make requisite announcements about the donations.

Finally, to bridge overly-partisan divides, donations should be made to charitable organizations palatable to all but the most extreme of either party.

If elected, Romney need not give away his presidential salary. However, should he choose to do so, he would be well-advised to utilize a giving strategy designed to unite Republicans and Democrats alike under a banner of nonpartisan giving.

Kurt Manwaring of Taylorsville is a consultant with Manwaring Consulting, LLC. Calvin Harper of Orem is an American Indian (Mi'kmaq tribe) and graduate of Columbia Law School.