Cabinet’s rich get . . . a little less so

Al Kamen
Columnist April 9, 2013

It’s become fashionable among Washington’s secretarial class (that is, the Cabinet kind) to give up a portion of their salaries to show solidarity with the hard-working folks under them whose pay is being pinched by the sequester.

It’s worth noting, however, that some of President Obama’s Cabinet secretaries can more easily afford to participate in the phenomenon we’ve dubbed “sacrifice solidarity” than others. For most, giving up a chunk of their nearly $200,000 annual pay amounts to little more than lost latte money. For a few, though, it’s a serious bit of cash relative to their bank-account balances.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who kicked off the trend by being the first to announce he’d magnanimously relinquish his salary, is a multimillionaire and the third-richest member of the Cabinet (see the figures below). The two richest members soon joined him: Secretary of State John Kerry, who is far and away the wealthiest of the bunch, and Attorney General Eric Holder. So did Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan (fifth wealthiest), Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (seventh), and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew (ninth).

It may be hard to keep up with those Joneses: One of the least wealthy members of the Cabinet, at No. 10, is Vice President Biden, who’s said to be considering whether to forgo some of his $231,000 salary.

We should note that it’s difficult to precisely rank Cabinet members by wealth, since their assets and debts are disclosed in ranges.


Vice President Biden is an exception in a Cabinet of millionaires. On the other hand, Attorney General Eric Holder, right, fits in fine. (JIM LO SCALZO/EPA)

For these rankings, we used the averages of the ranges, based on the most recent forms submitted to the Office of Government Ethics and analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. We also omitted acting secretaries and those whose replacements’ nominations are pending in the Senate.

And as wealthy as the Cabinet is now, it’s poised to turn into an even more exclusive club. If hotel scion Penny Pritzker gets the nod for commerce secretary, as is expected, the group will have its first billionaire. And Obama’s recent picks — Ernest Moniz, a physicist who sits on multiple boards, to be the new energy secretary, and REI CEO Sally Jewell for Interior — are quite comfortable, too.

Here’s a list of Cabinet secretaries and their net-worth ranges.

●Secretary of State Kerry: $184.2 million to $287.7 million.

●Attorney General Holder: $3.8 million to $8.4 million.

●Defense Secretary Hagel: $2.8 million to $6 million.

●Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki: $2.2 million to $5.9 million.

●HUD Secretary Donovan: $1.5 million to $6.1 million.

●Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: $1.2 million to $5.6 million.

●HHS Secretary Sebelius: $502,000 to $4.9 million.

●Education Secretary Arne Duncan: $1.3 million to $3.4 million.

●Treasury Secretary Lew: $748,000 to $1.7 million.

●Vice President Biden: $39,000 to $806,000.

●DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano: $93,000 to $695,000.

●Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: minus $508,000 to (plus) $106,000.

All talk?

The lunatic North Korean regime continues nuclear threats and tests while the Obama administration continues its policy of “strategic patience” — which might be roughly defined as not doing much, but in a strategical-looking kinda way — and hoping the new Chinese regime will do something. (Not likely.)

The Obama foreign policy team had watched as the George W. Bush administration bent over backward during years of negotiations with North Korea. The Bush administration sent over uber-diplomat Christopher Hill to work the issue full time and agreed to give back seized funds, give food aid, drop the regime from the list of state sponsors of terrorism — all for verbal agreements that the North never fulfilled while the Koreans continued their nuclear and missile program.

The U.N. sanctions continue, but as long as neighboring China doesn’t enforce them, they’ll have minimal effect. And China won’t act against the North, as our colleague John Pomfret recently wrote.

But there was a time not long ago when a top member of the Obama administration called for military action against the North.

That would be Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter — the guy who sparked that salary give-back stampede amongst administration officials to show solidarity with federal workers affected by the sequester.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2006, Carter, who had been assistant defense secretary in the Bill Clinton administration, and former Clinton defense secretary William Perry wrote that “intervening” in North Korea “before more mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy.”

Washington needed to “strike and destroy” a long-range missile the North Koreans were planning to launch. The authors suggested a cruise missile should take out the North Korean missile.

“But diplomacy has failed,” they wrote, “and we cannot sit by and let this deadly threat mature.”

Of course, as an academic — they were both college profs at the time — it’s one thing; when you’ve got the reins, it’s another.

A senior Defense Department official assured us Tuesday that “Deputy Secretary Carter fully supports the administration’s current policy towards North Korea.”

Carter and Perry were surely right when they said that doing nothing “would only embolden North Korea even further.”

Embarrassment of riches

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has been focused on the courts lately — and we don’t mean judicial nominations pending in the upper chamber.

The Kentucky Republican and University of Louisville alum was in the Georgia Dome on Monday night to cheer on his beloved Cardinals men’s basketball team as it won the NCAA title. There was even grumbling that he’d fixed the Senate vote schedule so he could make the game.

But don’t look for McConnell to pull similar moves to attend the Louisville women’s team’s championship bid Tuesday night in New Orleans — though one could argue that the women’s run has been even more impressive than the men’s.

Guess one can only play so many of one’s . . . cards.

Still, McConnell planned to watch the game on TV from Washington, said spokesman Don Stewart. “Go, Cards,” Stewart added.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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