Sharing a bit of budget pain, President Barack Obama will return 5 percent of his salary to the Treasury in a show of solidarity with federal workers smarting from government-wide spending cuts.
Hundreds of thousands of workers could be forced to take unpaid leave – known as furloughs – if Congress does not reach an agreement soon to undo the cuts. The president is demonstrating that he will be paying a price, too, as the White House warns of dire economic consequences from the $85 billion in cuts – called a sequester – that started to hit federal programs last month after Congress failed to stop them.
A 5 percent cut from the president's salary of $400,000 per year amounts to $20,000. Obama will return a full $20,000 to the Treasury even though only a few months remain in the fiscal year, which ends in September.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama reported almost $790,000 in adjusted gross income in 2011, the most recent year for which their tax returns have been made public. That figure was down from the $1.7 million they brought in the year before and the $5.5 million they reported in 2009. About half of the family's income in 2011 came from Obama's salary, with the rest coming from book sales. The Obamas reported more than $172,000 in charitable donations.
"The salary for the president, as with members of Congress, is set by law and cannot be changed," Obama spokesman Jay Carney said late Wednesday. "However, the president has decided that to share in the sacrifice being made by public servants across the federal government that are affected by the sequester, he will contribute a portion of his salary back to the Treasury."
Wednesday's notice followed a similar move a day earlier by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who committed to taking a salary cut equal to 14 days' pay – the same level of cut that other Defense Department civilians are being forced to take. As many as 700,000 civilians will have to take one unpaid day off each week for up to 14 weeks in the coming months.
Obama isn't the first president to give up part of his paycheck. Herbert Hoover put his salary in a separate account, then divvied it up, giving part to charity and part to employees he felt were underpaid. John F. Kennedy donated his presidential salary to various charities. George Washington refused pay during the latter part of his military career. He tried to refuse a presidential salary, but Congress required that the position pay $25,000.