By Jeffrey Neal
This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.
Being offered a political appointment can be exciting. You have an opportunity to serve the public and the president, do meaningful work and make a difference. But after the excitement fades, it is time to get into the details, including one of the most important considerations for many people—the pay.
Salary is an important consideration for the majority of appointees, particularly those in Schedule C or noncareer Senior Executive Service positions. Does the agency have flexibility in setting your pay? Can you negotiate? How about pay raises or performance bonuses?
Agency flexibility in setting pay depends on the job. For many positions the answers are yes, they have options. Keep in mind that pay for political appointees is a political issue. That means an administration may choose not to use all the flexibility the law allows and that may limit your pay.
The government does not pay senior officials the kind of money typically found in the private sector. In the government, you may run a multi-billion-dollar program with thousands of employees and make less (sometimes much less) than $200,000 per year. You should also not be surprised if you receive a political appointment and have subordinates who make more than you. Career employee pay is much more controlled by statute and regulations, and is not connected to the pay of political appointees.
Political positions are listed in the Plum Book, which is published in late November or early December of a presidential election year. Here are the six most common types of political jobs and how their pay is set:
Executive Schedule Positions. These are the big jobs, such as Cabinet secretaries and other agency heads, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and some assistant secretaries. The positions are listed in the Plum Book as Pay Plan EX. Pay for these positions falls into one of five pay grades from I to V, with EX-I being the highest. There is no locality pay and there are no bonuses. The pay tables show a higher level of pay than what is payable for many jobs due to a political appointee pay freeze (see the pay table for details). There are instances when an Executive Schedule appointee in levels I — IV can get higher pay, but they are rare and require approval by the Office of Personnel Management and the White House.
Noncareer SES Positions. These are senior positions that usually run major programs. The number is capped at 10% of the number of SES positions government-wide. Pay is listed in the Plum Book as Pay Plan ES. Pay varies widely, starting at $131,239 and topping out at $197,300. Agencies have broad discretion on setting pay with White House approval typically required. There are some cases where pay can be set higher, such as in financial regulatory agencies or when an agency can get OPM and White House approval for critical position pay, but that is rare. Pay for these positions is often negotiable within the pay range. The time to negotiate is before you are appointed. Once you are appointed, big changes in pay are much harder to receive. The strongest case for your pay is one based on current pay. If you are in a job that pays $100,000 per year, it is unlikely an agency will pay you $197,300. Noncareer SES do not receive locality pay or bonuses.
Senior Level Positions. These positions are not SES positions, but are paid using the same pay scale. Pay is often negotiable within the pay range. The pay plan is listed in the Plum Book as SL.
Administratively Determined Pay Positions. These positions, designated in the Plum Book as Pay Plan AD, are in agencies with independent authority to determine the rates for any group or category of employees. Examples of AD political appointments are U.S. attorneys. Agencies must follow their unique statutory authority to set or adjust pay under an AD pay system. Although there are AD positions where pay is negotiable, many are not.
Schedule C Positions. These comprise the largest number of political positions (about 1,400). “Schedule C” is a technical term that refers to the statutory authority for the appointment. Most Schedule C positions are paid using the same General Schedule or equivalent pay levels (including locality pay) that agencies use for their career workforce. Schedule C employees can be promoted. Step increases, bonuses and “quality step increases” (QSIs) are authorized by statute. Bonuses and QSIs are optional and have been restricted by administrations in prior years. You can negotiate pay and grade within reason, based upon your qualifications and salary history.
Boards and commissions. Many political appointments are as members of boards and commissions. Pay for those positions depends on many factors, including whether the position is full-time or part-time. Check the Plum Book for more details on specifics.
The Plum Book will contain more information on other, less common pay plans and types of positions. Keep in mind that the Plum Book is published every four years and many positions are created at the discretion of the administration. The 2020 Plum Book will include positions that existed in the Trump administration. The next administration (whether the president is reelected or not) may choose to change many of the positions that are not mandated by statute.
Jeffrey Neal is the author of the blog ChiefHRO.com and previously served as chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security.