Excessive compensation for corporate executives first emerged as a national concern in the early 1980s, about the same time that deep cuts in the top marginal federal income tax rate took effect. Until then, high top-bracket federal income tax rates - 91 percent on income over $400,000 until 1964, then 70 percent on income over $200,000 until 1981 - helped keep what might be called a "cultural cap" on CEO pay. Corporate boards could offer million-dollar pay packages, but what would be the point? The bulk of any pay over the top-bracket income floor would simply be taxed away.
This tax pressure on excessive executive compensation has faded over the past quarter-century. The top marginal tax rate dipped, at one point, to 28 percent and currently sits at 35 percent. High pay now pays, even after taxes. Compensation for top executives in the United States, consequently, has soared, from 30 to 40 times average worker pay a generation ago to over 400 times average worker compensation today.1
This enormous gap has prompted a search for legislative initiatives that seek to address, either directly or indirectly, executive excess. This paper highlights these efforts.
- Protection Against Executive Compensation Abuse Act (H.R. 4291 in the 109th Congress)
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), now chair of House Financial Services, first introduced this legislation in 2005. His bill both requires corporations to disclose how they plan to pay their top executives and mandates that companies bring their executive pay plans before shareholders for a vote.
Each plan, under the legislation, must spell out the short- and long-term performance goals that determine top executive pay. Plans, to become effective, would have to win shareholder approval, a requirement that staff for Rep. Frank intend to clarify and strengthen in the new version of the bill now being prepared. The Frank legislation also requires companies to recapture compensation awarded on the basis of financial results later shown to be bogus.
In addition, the legislation requires shareholder approval for "golden parachute" packages that unfurl upon the sale or purchase of company assets.
On July 26, 2006, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission released new regulations on executive pay disclosure that seemed to make the Frank legislation less urgently needed. But the Frank bill suddenly became timelier than ever in December when, late on the Friday before Christmas, the SEC amended the regulations unveiled last summer.
The new SEC rule introduced in December changes the way corporations are required to report options grants in the highlighted "summary compensation" table of their proxy statements. Under the old rule, companies had to reveal a total value for the stock options they awarded top executives in the year they made the award. The amended rule lets corporations report options grants bit by bit over the years the option awards are vesting.
These summary tables are supposed to provide full and clear disclosure of just how much in compensation a company's five highest-paid executives are annually collecting. The SEC considers the December change in the disclosure regulations a "technicality." Critics, including Rep. Frank, say the change will understate the actual cost of executive pay packages.
- Income Equity Act (H.R. 3260 in the 109th Congress)
Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn., now retired) first introduced the Income Equity Act in 1993 and reintroduced the bill in every Congress over the next dozen years.2 The bill eliminates corporate tax deductions on any executive compensation that exceeds 25 times the pay of a company's lowest-paid workers.
Under this bill, if a company's lowest-paid workers take home $25,000, the company would be able to claim no more than $625,000, for each top executive, as a legitimate deductible business expense.
Under current tax law, average taxpayers, in effect, subsidize excessive executive compensation. The more corporations pay their executives, the less in taxes they pay.
- The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, Section 331.
Two years ago, on the initiative of Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Senate and then the House included in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 a little-noticed provision that sets a significant legislative precedent in the debate over excessive corporate executive pay.
This Kennedy provision limits pay for top executives, for the first time ever, to a fixed multiple of the pay that goes to a company's average workers. No company in bankruptcy, under the new bankruptcy act, can bestow upon its executives any "retention" bonus or severance pay that runs over ten times the average bonus or severance awarded to regular employees in the previous year.
This legislation does not cover "performance-based pay," and news reports indicate that companies in bankruptcy, to avoid the Section 331 pay limits, are defining their executive bonuses as "performance-based."
- Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act of 2001
In the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, Congress set an important precedent for ensuring that corporate executives would not be able to profit personally from the country's troubles. Congress, shortly after the terrorist attack, authorized a $15 billion bailout for the nation's airlines. This bailout legislation prohibited airlines from handing any raise, over the following two years, to any executive who made over $300,000 in the year 2000. The legislation also limited severance to double an executive's final annual compensation.
The principle behind this bailout law could be applied more broadly. During wartime, for example, Congress could insist that the pay levels for executives of all companies receiving war-related contracts be frozen at their peace-time level.
- Limits on tax-free deferred compensation
The Senate Finance Committee, in January 2007, adopted a package of tax measures intended to increase revenues to offset tax breaks for businesses impacted by an increase in the minimum wage. One of these measures would, if enacted, limit how much compensation an individual can have deferred to $1 million annually. This provision, Senate staff estimate, would generate an additional $806 million in tax revenues over 10 years.
Early in February, the full Senate adopted this provision as part of the minimum wage increase compromise package. The House version of the minimum wage increase did not include this proposal, or any other provision not tied directly to the minimum wage statute, and, at this writing, the fate of the Senate cap remains unclear.
Deferral cap critics say the bill will unfairly impact mid-level employees since the deferral limit kicks in "when earnings in a plan exceed the five-year average of an employee's annual taxable pay, or $1 million, whichever is less."
In fact, only people making far more than the pay of mid-level American employees would be in any way impacted by the legislation. Americans, through 401(k)s and other "qualified" pay deferral plans, can already have set aside, tax-free, enough money to guarantee a secure retirement. The legislation approved by the Senate Finance Committee speaks only to "nonqualified" deferral plans. These plans give selected high-income individuals, not a company's entire workforce, the opportunity to shield unlimited amounts of their pay from taxes.
Other critics charge that executives would respond to any cap on tax-deferred compensation by simply demanding more pay in other forms, through larger bonuses, for example. Executives certainly might demand - and even expect - more overall pay if a deferral cap became law. But a deferred-income cap would be significant nonetheless. With a cap in place, America's most lavishly paid executives would no longer be able to avoid taxes on lush annual income packages.
- Defining "reasonable" compensation
On September 6, 2006, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the stock option backdating scandal that focused considerable attention on the 1993 change to Section 162(m) of the federal tax code. The 1993 reform limited the tax deductibility of certain top executive compensation to $1 million, but allowed corporations to deduct unlimited sums above that cap, so long as these additional rewards were based on performance.
At the hearing, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) noted that the tax code currently stipulates that compensation must be "reasonable" to qualify as a business expense.3 He asked if the IRS had ever considered challenging the deductibility of an executive's compensation on the grounds the compensation was not a "reasonable" allowance. The answer: no. A useful reform, Senator Bingaman's exchange suggests, might be to set a standard for reasonability.
- Linking special tax considerations to executive pay
In the mid 1990s, at both the federal and state levels, various lawmakers suggested creating a new tax-favored category of corporation, with the tax breaks from that category flowing to those corporations that meet a series of "good behavior" benchmarks.
In 1996, as part of a "Senate High Wage Jobs Task Force," Senators Bingaman and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) floated the notion of an "R" corporation. Corporations could only qualify for tax-advantaged "R" status - the "R" stood for "responsible" - if they contributed 3 percent of payroll to portable pensions, devoted 2 percent to employee training, paid half their employee health care costs, encouraged profit sharing or employee ownership, and held the pay of executives to no more than 50 times the pay of their lowest-paid employees.
- Linking government procurement to executive pay
Current federal law links government procurement to selected equity standards. Companies that discriminate against women or members of minority groups in their employment practices cannot receive government contracts.
Government contracting could make an equally significant contribution to greater equity in American life, some analysts have observed, by tying procurement to internal compensation practices. Under this approach, companies that compensated their executives at over 25 or 50 times what their lowest-paid workers receive would not be eligible to win federal contracts.
Federal procurement law already limits the amount of pay that a company with a government contract can bill the government for executive compensation. This sum, set annually, has never neared as much as $1 million, or less than 10 percent the current average compensation for major corporate chief executives.
But this "cap" only applies to direct federal dollars. A corporation whose profits or share price soars after receiving a federal contract remains free to pay its top executives whatever the company's board pleases.
- Enabling a broader right to bring suit against offending corporations
In 2002, California Senate majority whip Richard Alarcon, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley, introduced a "Code for Corporate Responsibility" to prohibit the directors of any corporation from performing their duties "at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public health and safety, the communities in which the corporation operates, or the dignity of the corporation's employees."
Alarcon's bill, if enacted, would have given average Californians the right to sue offending corporations - and their directors - if damaged by any violation of these prohibitions. If his bill ever became law, corporate directors who handed lavish option windfalls to executives while these executives were handing pink slips to employees could be held personally liable, under the code, for subjecting employees to indignity.
Institute for Policy Studies:
Sam Pizzigati, IPS Associate Fellow and Editor, Too Much online.
Contact: [email protected], 301-933-2710.
Sarah Anderson, IPS Global Economy Project Director.
Contact: [email protected], 202 234 9382 x 227.
IPS, an independent center for research and education, has produced an annual study of executive compensation for the past 13 years.
Center for Corporate Policy:
Charlie Cray, Director of the Center for Corporate Policy.
Contact: email@example.com, 202-387-8030.
CCP is a nonpartisan public research and advocacy organization working for corporate accountability.