Did Obama lie about White House salaries in Twitter town hall?

During his Twitter town hall, Barack Obama wanted to let Americans know that his administration feels the nation’s economic pain just like everyone else.  Why, his staff — well-paid as they are, with 21 of them making the maximum $172,200 per year — haven’t had a raise in more than two years, ever since Obama froze federal salaries in the first few months of his term:

But what I can do is to speak out forcefully for the principle that we can make these adjustments that are necessary during these difficult fiscal times, but do it in a way that preserves collective bargaining rights.  And certainly at the federal level where I do have influence, I can make sure that we make these adjustments without affecting people’s collective bargaining rights.

I’ll give you just one example.  We froze federal pay for federal workers for two years.  Now, that wasn’t real popular, as you might imagine, among federal workers.  On the other hand, we were able to do that precisely because we wanted to prevent layoffs and we wanted to make sure that we sent a signal that everybody is going to have to make some sacrifices, including federal workers.

By the way, people who work in the White House, they’ve had their pay frozen since I came in, our high-wage folks.  So they haven’t had a raise in two and a half years, and that’s appropriate, because a lot of ordinary folks out there haven’t, either.  In fact, they’ve seen their pay cut in some cases.

So no one at the White House has seen a salary increase in over two years?  Er, not quiteGawker’s John Cook did a little comparison between the published salary reports for the three cycles, and it turns out that more than half saw their salaries increase from 2010 to 2011 — and 75% got increases from 2009 to 2010:

The White House released its annual salary report last week, and as usual, it’s nice to work for Barack Obama: Most staffers who were there for more than a year got a salary bump. A bigger one than you did.

The last time we checked in on White House salaries, we found that an astonishing 75% of continuing staffers got raises from 2009 to 2010—a huge number given the fact that, according to compensation experts, most companies had skipped routine raises that year in reaction to the economic crisis that the White House was busy failing to solve. This time around—from 2010 to 2011—the ratio is a little less dramatic. Of the 270 White House staffers who have been there for more than a year, 146—or 54%—received raises. The average salary increase was 8%. If you look at only staffers who got raises, the average increase was twice that.

That’s a much bigger raise than the average white-collar worker got. According to a survey conducted last year by the human resources consulting firm Mercer, most firms were projecting a 3% increase in base pay for executives. White House workers did nearly three times as well. Overall, it should be noted, the White House’s salary budget contracted slightly, from $38.8 million to $37.1 million, largely because the number of staffers fell. The average salary also dropped from $82,721, or 65% above the median household income, to $81,765—or 65% above the median household income.

So who’s telling the truth?  Hint: it’s not the master of Hope and Change.  First, not all White House salaries were frozen for two years.  Obama froze salaries of White House staff making over $100K two years ago, but the across-the-board federal freeze that impacts the rest of the staff didn’t take place until January 2011. That’s how economic adviser Matthew Vogel got an 82% pay increase (of $59,000 to $130,500) in 2010.  Vogel wasn’t the only one to get his income nearly doubled, but given how the economy has performed over the past two years, this particular raise seems … less than justified.

The freeze didn’t make much difference, anyway.  The staff got raises through a nifty little dodge: job title or description changes.  In some cases, though, the dodge got a little more sophisticated.  Michael Gottlieb quit his post of special assistant and associate counsel, only to take the job again — at a 14% increase in pay, from $114,000 to $130,500. Nearly everyone remaining at the White House has had a pay increase over the last two and a half years

Gawker’s story got this response from the White House.  Compare it to the categorical statement issued by Obama during his town hall, emphasis mine:

President Obama is committed to continuing to reduce costs in government, and that is why over the past year, the average salary of a White House employee went down, the total number of White House staffers went down, and the total amount spent on White House salaries went down. Pay increases were given for a variety of reasons, ranging from promotions to additional work responsibilities.

So no one at the White House has gotten pay increases, unless they deserved it, and sometimes even when they didn’t.  Those who continue to work at the White House have averaged an 8% increase in salary during this period, more than twice the rate in the private sector.  Only in the Obama administration can someone describe this as a “pay freeze.”

Update: Vogel’s raise was $59,000, not his previous salary, so I should have written “of” instead of “from”.  Thanks to DAbernathy89 on Twitter for the correction.