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History of Federal Government Salaries

Though the United States of America officially became a country in 1776, it wasn’t until March of 1789 that both the House of Representatives and Senate would meet for the First Federal Congress. At the time, congressmen and senators were only paid for the days on which they showed up. For each of those days, they’d receive $6.

While that doesn’t sound like much, that translates into about $130 in today’s money. That means that for an eight-hour day, these politicians were earning just $16.25 per hour. That amount would have less spending power as the years went on, as the per diem didn’t increase with inflation. By the early 19th century, congressmen and senators were still only making $6 per diem.

This would change briefly in 1816 when the members of Congress voted to give themselves a $1,500 yearly salary, but it was short-lived and changed back to a per diem of up to $8 for decades. In 1855, members of Congress received salaries of $3,000 (or over $83,000 by today’s standards), and they’ve been receiving a salary ever since.

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The amount of money that each member of Congress makes hasn’t decreased since 1933. There were salary decreases in 1874, 1932, and 1933 to mark the only three times that this has happened in Congressional history. 1925 marked the first time that they were making a five-figure salary at $10,000 per year ($188,762 adjusted). Since 1991, members of Congress have been making a six-figure salary.

It wasn’t until 2000 that being a majority/minority leader, President Pro Tempore, or Speaker of the House had the perk of being paid more than the rest of Congress. The first increase in the Speaker’s salary was $181,400, which was $30,100 more than other congresspeople. By 2004, that number for the Speaker would grow to over $200,000.

Then, of course, you have the much-talked-about salary of the President of the United States. Just like Congress, the first time that a president received a salary came in 1789 after George Washington had won the inaugural presidential election a month after the First Federal Congress. Washington received a salary of $25,000, which would be well over $800,000 by current standards.

There was a very long freeze on the president’s salary after its introduction, and the salary finally doubled to $50,000 in 1873 when Ulysses S. Grant was the POTUS. Another increase came in 1909 when the salary took another $25,000 jump to $75,000 and did so again in 1949 to hit the six-figure mark. William Howard Taft and Harry Truman were the presidents during these increases, respectively.

In just 20 years, the president’s salary doubled from $100,000 to $200,000 in 1969, with Richard Nixon being the big beneficiary. Members of Congress have been hesitant to increase the president’s salary since then, only doing so once. That came in 2001 when the salary was once again doubled while George W. Bush was in office, making the total $400,000, while the president does also enjoy a $50,000 spending account.

Most of the figureheads at the federal level are all receiving six-figure salaries by now. The Vice President of the United States earns over $250,000 per year, as well as justices on the Supreme Court. In 1789, the Chief Justice received a $4,000 salary while all others received $3,500. Unlike other salaries at that level, Supreme Court justice salaries increase almost every year, topping $200,000 for the first time in 2004 for the Chief Justice.

Not all federal employee salaries are built the same, though. Many have to work their way up the ladder or become elected to enjoy a six-figure salary. National Park rangers are making far less than Congressional members, so salaries do vary greatly.

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