Even though compensation committees hire current and former executives, they still have shareholders' interests in mind, said Bill Strahan, a senior consultant with Philadelphia-based Mercer Human Resources Consulting, which helps companies set compensation.

'Not the enemy'

"Finding people who are both capable and willing to do what it takes is difficult," Strahan said. "Executives are not the enemy."

Others believe the talent pool for the top jobs has grown in recent years as the corporate world has expanded to include more managers with the skills to run companies.

"If we have more supply and less demand, you would think that would lead to a decrease in compensation," Crystal said.

People and organizations have tried for years to reform CEO pay with little progress.

During the late '90s, companies made stock options a major portion of executive pay in an effort to tie performance to pay. The practice lost favor after executives focused too much on short-term results, experts said.

Rep. Martin Sabo, a Minnesota Democrat, has proposed legislation seven times since 1991 that would restrict the tax deductions companies can take for salary expenses. Some companies have tried to set limits on CEO-to-worker salary ratios, although that hasn't always worked.

Ben & Jerry's, the Vermont ice cream maker, had a rule during the early 1980s that no employee could make more than five times what the lowest-paid worker was paid. That capped CEO pay at $81,000.

The plan was scrapped in 1994 when Ben Cohen, one of the company's co-founders, retired from the top spot and the company found it needed to pay more to compete for an outside leader, said Ben & Jerry's spokesman Lee Holden.

Pay ratios

The AFL-CIO reports on its "Executive Paywatch" Web site that before 1990, average worker-to-CEO pay ratios were less than 1 to 100. By 2000, ratios were above 1 to 500. They dropped to about 1 to 300 in 2003.

American chief executives receive pay packages that are about 63 percent larger than their European counterparts', according to a 2004 study released by the Hay Group, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm.

But comparisons between executive salaries and those of rank-and-file workers don't make sense given the difference in the jobs, some experts say.

"Executives, because of the nature of the risks that they manage, have a disproportionate impact on the business and the community," Strahan said.