I think George W. Bush deserves a raise.
You're waiting for the punch line, I know. You're figuring with a setup like that, about a president whose popularity lives down where moles and earthworms do, the payoff's got to be a doozy.
Sorry, but there is no punch line because that wasn't a setup. I think the president should get a raise. Congress, too. And yes, I know Congress' approval ratings are similarly subterranean.
But see, the argument I'm making has nothing to do with this individual president or Congress. It is, rather, about us, about what we want and deserve in our leadership. Here's the short version:
You get what you pay for.
If you want the longer version, well ... bear with me.
Last month, New York Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, announced co-sponsorship of a bill to block a congressional pay raise that takes effect in 2009. She said, "While Upstate New Yorkers struggle to fill their gas tanks, pay for health care and pay their taxes, the last thing a member of Congress should be focused on is raising their own pay."
And really, who's going to argue? It has the advantage of sounding selfless, responsible, high-minded and a bunch of other virtues politicians scheme to simulate. Still, I think Ms. Gillibrand has it exactly wrong.
For the record, a member of Congress makes $169,300 a year. The president earns $400,000. Seen from the perspective of those who struggle to fill gas tanks, that's a lot of money. But according to Forbes magazine, the average CEO of a large corporation earns $15.2 million a year. Yes, those people are gluttonous greedheads who should be burned on a pyre of dollar bills. I'll bring the match.
Still, if that's the going rate, if that's what is earned by the best and the brightest, who can be shocked that paying a tiny fraction of that often saddles us with the dumb and the dumbest? Consider a note handwritten by former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham to a reporter whose work helped send him to jail for taking $2.4 million in bribes.
In 2006, Rolling Stone quoted an excerpt: "Each time you print it hurts my family And now I have lost them Along with Everything I have worked for during my 64 years of life. I am human not an Animal to keep whiping. I made some decissions Ill be sorry for the rest of my life. ... As truth will come out and you will find out how liablest you have & will be."
He was a congressman and he doesn't know how to spell "whipping?" Or "decisions?" Or "libelous?" Or that a period ends a sentence? He was chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee, and his writing would embarrass a smart seventh-grader?
Suddenly, it's easier to understand why we see some of the decision-making we do, some of the money-grubbing corruption we do, why government service attracts the likes of Larry Craig, Tom DeLay, William Jefferson.
We have this notion that people should seek leadership from an instinct for public service. I share that belief.
But I also know you can't put an instinct for public service into the gas tank. Nor will it pay bills on the two residences - one at home, one in D.C. - a congressperson must maintain.
So here's a modest proposal: Pay the president $1 million a year (shouldn't the person who runs the government earn at least one-fifteenth of what the person who runs Global Widgets makes?) and pay lawmakers half that.
We should do this, not for their sake, but for ours. Not as a reward for the leaders we have, but as an inducement for those we don't.
Because if it's true you get what you pay for, one glance at the incompetence, mendacity, corruption and sleaze we so often see in our national leadership should make one thing abundantly clear:
We don't pay nearly enough.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.