Bring Back the ‘Dollar-a-Year Men’

Getting a group of business leaders to serve our country would be transformative.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Government needs more "dollar-a-year" men like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

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When I was in ninth grade, my dad told me that a former classmate of his had just won the Republican primary for our local congressional seat, and Dad suggested I volunteer for his campaign. The candidate was Frank Wolf, the son of a police officer from Philadelphia, and I answered phones in his campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia. Wolf lost the election that year but came back two years later in 1980 and won. I lived in his district for many years and always thought he was a hardworking, decent man.

Wolf announced last week that he's not running for re-election, making him the eighth House Republican who has decided to retire. The states they represent run from coast to coast, and their ages and seniority span a wide range as well. Only one Democrat, Jim Matheson of Utah, has announced his retirement.

The fact that so many Republicans are retiring sounds like an opening for Democrats. But that may not be the case, especially given the number of independent voters who are turned off by the Democratic Party right now. President Obama won the presidency by winning independent voters; now they're deserting him in droves. In fact, Obama's job approval average among all voters stands at around 42 percent, according to Gallup; among independents, it's even lower, at only 35 percent. For Democrats to win back independents is a tough sell right now. All indicators are that if the GOP can field some solid replacements for the retiring incumbents, the midterm elections will go well for Republicans.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

But I'm concerned with a bigger, long-term problem: namely, that the Republican Party's recruiting mechanism is broken. There just doesn't seem to be much of a pipeline for future candidates. Lately, I've talked to many business leaders and CEOs – the kind of hardworking, decent people we need in public service, and the sort who know how to fix what's wrong and get our country back on track – and not one of them is interested in running for office. One CEO told me that Washington is so broken, he doesn't think he'd be able to make a difference. Another didn't think it was worth putting his family though all the scrutiny. "Why on Earth would anyone want to run for Congress these days?" a third asked me. These are people who would be terrific in public office and not one is even remotely considering it. No way, no how.

It's hard to get limited-government conservatives to join a government run amok. That's why this is a bigger problem for the right than for the left. If you believe, as many on the left do, that government is good and that we need more of it – or, as the president put it this summer, "The government is us, and we're doing things right" – you'll have no problem recruiting others who agree with that. From what I've heard from these business leaders, that's not how they feel at all. The aggressively anti-business atmosphere in the Obama White House has really turned them off, as has the permanent state of gridlock in Washington.

One way to fix this is to bring back the idea of "dollar-a-year men" – men and women who serve in the president's Cabinet or as senior-level appointees at agencies across the government for a salary of $1 a year. Federal law prohibits the government from accepting unpaid volunteer services, so traditionally the pay came to be a dollar a year. It was a common practice during World War I and World War II, when such industry leaders as Bernard Baruch, James Forrestal and Averell Harriman jumped into service for the good of the country. More recently, former governors Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger and outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg served as dollar-a-year men in their elected offices.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Getting a group of business leaders to serve our country – knowing that others would be doing it with them for anywhere from two to four years at either the White House or a federal agency – would be transformative. Think what it would be like if Eric Schmidt of Google, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard or John Mackey of Whole Foods announced they'd join the Cabinet for a buck. Get this: All of the people I just listed do not accept a salary in their current jobs. (For tax reasons, they forgo salaries in favor of bonuses and stock options – but still, they do not accept a salary.) Every one of them is already used to it and can afford to work for free for a few years.