Fred J. Cassibry is demoralized. He describes the economic landscape of his life with the kind of despair usually reserved for hurricane survivors returning to the wreckage of their home town.
Patiently he catalogues the humiliations to which his present financial condition has reduced him - the mounting bills, the thousands of dollars in loans he cannot repay, the friends he avoids because he cannot afford to return their dinner invitations.
"You think you've achieved something in your life," he says. "You work hard. And then to find you really haven't accomplished anything - it's demoralizing."
Cassibry, however, is not an addition to the welfare rolls or the unemployment line. He is, as he has been for the last 11 years, a U.S. District Court Judge in New Orleans, La.
Currently, Cassibry earns an annual salary of $42,000. Barring any unexpected changes by Congress, he and his judicial colleagues, executive level federal officials and the members of Congress themselves will be getting a pay raise on Feb. 20.
With the exception of a 5 per cent cost-of-living increase they received last year, it will be the first pay raise they have received since 1969. During that time, salaries for these officials - as well as for the Civil Service "supergrades," GS levels 16 through 18 - have remained frozen, while the cost of living has increased by two-thirds. Salaries in private industry, meanwhile, increased an average of over 50 per cent.
The result, according to the report of the Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial salaries that makes quadrennial pay proposals to the President, has been a "crisis" in the higher reaches of the federal bureaucracy where "the rate of good people leaving the government in the upper grades has become a flood."
The frozen salaries have led to a situation where federal judges are leaving the bench and the black robe behind in record numbers, where the average tenure of a presidential appointee below the Cabinet secretary level is about two years, where supergrade Civil Service employees are opting for early retirement with increasing frequency since their retirement benefits include an annual cost-of-living increase denied them if they stay on the job.
According to Social Security Commissioner James B. Cardwell, his agency lost six of its top level employees in 1975 because, he said, "in the face of the frozen salary levels, retirement just became too attractive." In addition, Cardwell said, it took the Social Security Administration over a year to find someone to fill the position of Chief Actuary for the agency - over 30 potential candidates refused the job, he said, because of the low pay.
The man who did take the job said he will probably leave it in about six months because he cannot afford to work at a job that pays half of what he could earn in the private sector.
With the average American earning a salary of approximately $11,000 in 1975, the last year for which figures are available, the travails of a $42,000-a-year federal judge or a $36,500 GS-18 are not likely to produce much sympathy from the majority of those who pay their salaries. In fact, according to a Commission survey of opinions about where government spending should be increased, "even 'welfare,' not traditionally an area in which many Americans want increased spending, fared better in the survey than government salaries."
Nevertheless, the Commission warned, "If we continue down the path of the past eight-years, in which the politics of survival have required no pay raises at all, we must accept the implications of a government of only the rich, or only the young and untried . . ."
Not to mention the demoralized. Judge Cassibry, 58, is one of over 140 federal judges who have joined an unprecedented suit and that claims that the eight-year freeze on their salaries has resulted in a constitutionally forbidden decrease in their pay - due to inflation. The suit, filed last year, is currently pending in the U.S. Court fo Claims.
The impending raise, Judge Cassibry feels, "doesn't make up for it. I'll never be able to catch up." It is, he said, "incredible that people do this to a group of publc servants."
Since he has been a federal judge, Cassibry said, he has had to take out $18,000 in loans "to try and maintain my standard of living." His wife, he said, has had to go to work as a real estate agent to help pay for the college education of three of his children, he has sold a dearly beloved 24-foot inboard motor boat, and given up membership in a country club.
In addition, Cassibry feels that he "can't associate with the friends I used to. I can't have them picking up the check for dinner when I know I can't afford to do the same. It makes me wonder what have I done with my life now."
And as the buying power of his salary has waned, so, said Cassibry, has his incentive. "I used to have a fine record," he said, "I used to work night and day. Now I put in my eight hours - no night work, no Saturdays. I don't enjoy it all anymore. I've lost all the zeal I had."
Even the prestige and status of the gavel and the black robe provide Cassibry with little consolation. "Honor and dignity," he said, "won't get you a loan."
Nevertheless, he sighs, "I guess all of this sounds ridiculous to many poor Americans."
U.S. District Court Judge Herbert Stern feels no need to apologize, perhaps in part because unlike many federal judges, he did not come to the bench from the plush offices of a highly paid private practice but rose through the ranks of the Justice department to become U.S. Attorney for New Jersey before being appointed a judge.
"I suppose it can fairly be said that we don't have a right to complain because nobody's drafted" to be a judge, Stern said. But, he contended, what the judges are asking for cannot truly be considered a raise since their salaries have decreased due to inflation while nearly every federal employee's salary has kept pace through cost of living increases. "No one forces them to be judges," Stern said, "but they shouldn't be forced out by the erosion of the dollar. We didn't get trained all that we did to be reduced to the lowest common denominator."
Like many federal judges, Stern sees the relatively low salaries as having long-term effects on the federal judiciary. "This is supposed to be a career position," he said. "No one's going to take it if they're going to be punished for it."
Many judges feel that it takes about five years before a judge is fully experienced. With a continuation of low salary levels, Stern contends, the judiciary faces the prospect of a plethora of persons taking the position to "stay a year or two in order to be called your honor the rest of your life."
While the judges realize they are not the only ones whose salaries have remained static for the last seven years, many of them have something less than comradely sympathy for the plight of the top ranking federal executives who receive presidential appointments. One judge, who asked not be quoted, referred to them as "playboys. They leave their cushy jobs, take a pay cut and work for the governmnt for a couple of years and get a few more credentials on their resume. Then they go back to the private sector where they're now worth twice as much as they were before."
Nevertheless, many presidential appointees feel that they, too, make their sacrifices in order to serve their country and that current salaries make anything longer than a two-year hitch financially untenable. Former deputy Transportation Secretary John W. Barnum, whose job ended with Jimmy Carter's inauguration said that his $44,600 annual salary was approximately one-fourth to one-fifth what he was making with the New York law firm of Kravath, Swaine and Moore.
The move to Washington to 1970, he said, put an end to his pastime of collecting modern art and meant borrowing money to keep his children in their private schools, an alternative he considered preferable to placing them in the District's private schools or moving out to the suburbs.
A salary increase, he said, "is imperative. It's just not possible to attract qualified people now." He feels that even the impending pay raise to $57,500 is not sufficient."They ought to give a 50 per cent increase," he said.
"One of the tragedies," Barnum said, "is that people only come to work for two or three years" and it often takes a year to thoroughly understand the job. People can only afford to stay that long, he said, before the financial drain begins to cut precipitiously into savings.
For George Dixon, former deputy secretary of the Treasury, the call came in December of 1975, leaving the question of a long-term career as a presidential appointee problematic at best. "Pay," he said, was not high on the list of deciding to come or not to come." Like Barnum, however, Dixon's nights were untroubled by fears of a lengthy time on the umeployment rolls once the new administration came in. "It's certainly a plus to have had Washington experience," he said. "Most businessmen are shamefully ignorant of how the government operates."
Dixon's own re-entry into the private sector has been a smooth one. He has exchanged his $44,600 salary for one of approximately $175,000-a-year, and his title of Dep. Director of the Treasury (annual budget: $3 billion) for that of President of First Bank System Inc., a multiple bank holding company (estimated resources: $7.5 billion).
There are those, however, who feel that the problem in attracting and keeping qualified people in the upper reaches of the federal bureaucracy is not the salaries but the tendency to stock these positions from the golden seas of the corporate executive suite or the silk stocking law office.
"I'm not troubled by moderate government salaries," said Ralph Nader associate Mark Green, who is director of the Corporate Responsibility Research Group. "They help filter out the monied conservatives who find they can't live on anything less than $70,000 a year. Current salaries are ample for public interest lawyers who are entering the government with increasing frequency."
While it is the attractive retirement benefits and not pay comparability with the private sector that is draining the GS supergrades, according to the Commission, low salaries have played a part in the vacancies that occur in a number of jobs traditionally filled not from the ranks of the Civil Service but from the outside. Haeworth Robertson is one such outsider.
Robertson, who is Chief Actuary for the Social Security Administration and a GS-18, will see his salary increase from $39,600 to $47,500. Nevertheless, he said, he will be surprised if he is still chief actuary six months from now. Haeworth Robertson has just about had it.
Robertson has held the job since April of 1975. It was first offered to him in 1973. At that time, he said, he was on his way to Geneva to work for the United Nation's International Labor Office. Robertson asked his family what they would think of exchanging a $60,000 a year income, a 30 minute drive to the Swiss ski slopes for what was then a $30,000 a year job in Baltimore. They didn't think much.
Two years later, the job was still open. No one would take what amounted to an at least 50 per cent pay cut from what actuaries earn in the outside world. This time, Robertson accepted.
"I asked my good friends about it to see how the job was perceived by my colleagues," Robertson recalled. "They call said it was an important job." Now, he said, when he goes to actuarial meetings, his colleagues "tell me what a great job I'm doing. Sometimes I say to them, 'how would you like to switch salaries?' So far everyone's said they couldn't afford it."
Robertson's not sure now that he can either. For awhile, he said, the "psychic income" derived from an interesting job well done was enough, but the long hours that have deprived him of any social life, the lack of talent he can hire at the low salaries and the depletions of money saved from the insurance company he once owned have made it doubtful, he said, that he can remain in the job even with the pay raise.
Robertson acknowledges that there are a lot of working people in the country to whom his salary sounds like a great deal of money. He said, "I don't know what that has to do with it. I'm not a cabdriver, I'm not a janitor. I'm well educated, I've spent a lot of years at this. I've worked hard to get the money to do the things I've wanted to do. If I were independently wealthy, it would be different."