"My taxes pay your salary!"
Perhaps you've been tempted to shout that from time to time. Perhaps more than that, depending on how often you've had to visit the DMV or wait on hold for the IRS. Hopefully, you had the good sense to hold your tongue. Entitlement is not a good look on anyone.
Still… despite doing their best impression of the villain from a John Hughes film, those jerks ranting at a clerk have a point. Our tax dollars do pay the salary of everyone who works in government. Some more than others.
Highest-Paid Employees Overall: College Football Coaches, Basketball Coaches, and Presidents
While most of this article will focus on the federal government, it's worth looking at several states because they pay far, far more than anyone else. Yes, despite near-constant budget woes and cuts to public goods like teachers, infrastructure, Medicaid, shelters and libraries, most states have enough in the budget to pay salaries that dwarf any checks cut by the federal Treasury.
The reason for this largesse? One word: sports.
Yes, NCAA coaches are by a very wide margin the highest-paid government employees in the entire country. It's not even close.
Now, in general, education takes top marks in terms of government pay. The average college president takes in around $150,000 per year, but the heads of major state universities collect much, much more than that. Gregory Fenves, President of the University of Texas, makes $750,000 (less than the $1 million his board of regents offered). The University of Virginia pays its president James Ryan the same amount.
Yet even Michael Collins ($1 million to head the University of Massachusetts' Medical School) can't compete with the pay scale of college coaches. In New Jersey, Rutgers pays Chris Ash $2.1 million to coach its football team. The University of Connecticut's Dan Hurley makes $3 million a year leading Huskie's basketball. He's probably jealous of John Calipari, who will make $9.2 million doing that job over at the University of Kentucky this year.
And Alabama, which receives 35% of its budget from the federal government, still managed to find $11.1 million to pay Nick Saban in 2017. (Don't worry, he's down to just $8.3 million now.)
The Highest Paying Government Jobs
On to the big show, although odds are the second half of this article cannot help but disappoint after the kind of numbers thrown around above. The highest paying jobs in the U.S. government are as follows.
Politicians, Judges, and Soldiers
• Politicians ($174,000 - $400,000)
We're going to lump all of these into one section because otherwise, they would dominate the rankings.
It probably makes some sense that the people trusted to run the entire country make a reasonable living while they do so. And while many supplement their incomes with outside fortunes, elected representatives in Washington do quite well. A rank-and-file member of the House or Senate makes $174,000 per year. Leadership does a little better. The majority and minority party leaders in each chamber make $193,400, while the Speaker of the House makes $223,500 a year.
The vice president of the U.S. makes $243,500 after a small pay bump passed earlier this year. The office of the president itself pays $400,000 a year, not to mention four years rent-free in reasonable accommodations.
• Federal Judges ($210,900 - $270,700)
Another category that we will sweep in because otherwise, it would just run away with the rest of this article. Federal judges are very well paid… even more so than members of Congress. What's more, they can keep that well-compensated job for life. It's a pretty great situation.
In 2019 a district court judge made $210,900 per year, while the circuit court judges who review their cases earned $223,700. Interestingly, up at the Supreme Court, the money isn't all that different. The Justices receive $258,900 for hearing the most important cases in the land, while the Chief Justice makes $270,700 as of the ringmaster of this whole show.
It might seem like a lot of money, and it is, but keep in mind how much these lawyers could make in private practice. Anyone of these men or women could walk into a major law firm and become a millionaire almost overnight… but then again, no one ever puts a federal judge on hold.
That's worth quite a lot of something.
• Generals and Admirals
You have to climb pretty high in the military before you start out-earning civilians. Specifically, you need to wear some stars.
At the rank of brigadier general in the Army, Air Force or Marines or the rank of rear admiral lower half in the Navy you become eligible for pay that can go as high as $151,283. This would make you one of the top earners in the federal government, although not as much as the politicians and the judges.
If you keep adding stars you can keep adding to your pay scale up to a maximum of $186,998 for a 4-star general or an admiral. And… that's where it ends. Now, let's not mince words: this is a lot of money. It would keep most American families in substantial comfort even without the generous benefits and retirement to which these officers are entitled.
On the other hand… we throw tens of thousands more at the judges to keep them from getting poached by the likes of Skadden Arps. Would someone like to suggest that the former commander of a Nimitz Class supercarrier is less employable than a former Phi Alpha Delta keg stand champ?
Workers and Employees
Below the headlines, there are the workers who make the wheels of government turn. According to the nonprofit FederalPay.org, the top 10 most lucrative ordinary professions one can do in government are:
• Securities Compliance Examiner: $181,013
Yes, as of the most recent data the highest-paid position in the federal government is "Securities Compliance Examiner."
These are... drum roll, please… lawyers! (Get used to this.) A securities compliance examiner works in the Securities and Exchange Commission and mostly polices for financial crimes and other violations. It's their job to make sure that the people on Wall Street don't get away with sleazy deals and take down the economy with them. Given recent experience, paying these guys well might not be such a bad idea.
• Patent Attorney: $170,078
The second-highest-paid position in government is also a lawyer.
What does a patent attorney do? What doesn't a patent attorney do!
Okay… there's a lot they don't do. Patent attorneys make sure that the U.S. patent system works the way it's supposed to. They help review new applications for validity, handle challenges to existing patents and in general make sure that the government only protects legitimate works of the original invention. Or at least they try…
• Nurse Anesthetist: $167,817
Anesthesia is one of the most delicate procedures in medicine. The people who administer it have to give you enough to knock you out yet not enough to risk harm or overdose. Having woken up once during a procedure, this writer promises: You want these specialists to know their jobs and get it right.
A nurse anesthetist will sometimes help an anesthesiologist to administer drugs, while in other cases they will do so directly.
• Administrative Law Judge: $163,112
"Admin judges," as they are fondly known in the profession, are the unsung heroes of the modern courtroom. These judges hear cases that concern that massive body of semi-formal law known as "regulation."
What is regulation? It's just about everything that the government says you have to do but that Congress didn't pass a law on. These days the federal government does most of its governing via regulation. This is why there's an entire bench dedicated just to hearing cases about product safety, airborne pollutants, and drug packaging.
• Patent Administrator: $161,308
Back to the patent office. It's enough to make you think they didn't once issue a patent to IBM IBM for the concept of out-of-office e-mail replies. Except, you know… they did. (Don't worry though! Once publicized, IBM graciously "dedicate[d] the patent to the public.")
So what is a patent administrator? It is typically a lawyer (another one) who helps the patent lawyer make sure that filings like the out-of-office email application don't make it through. They do research, draft motions and memos and review patents to generally help make sure that applications and challenges are handled properly.
• Technical Systems Program Manager: $153,430
Don't know what this is? Don't worry. This is a very government-style job description.
A technical systems program manager (TSPM) is mostly hired by the FAA. They deal with air traffic issues, air travel safety and upgrades to the national airspace system. Per the FAA's description, someone in this job "serves as a program lead in assigned areas of responsibility to provide expertise on technical matters, programs, and procedures relating to the National Airspace Systems… [And] analyzes proposed changes to the National Airspace Systems (NAS) to determine the impact and provide suggestions to improve the quality of services and correct deficiencies using experience and comprehensive technical knowledge of the NAS."
The representative technical systems program manager helps build, maintain and operate the national air traffic system. Yes. Let's keep these men and women well paid, shall we?
• General Mathematician/Statistician: $153,213
Could there be another more government job description than this? It conjures up two-story whiteboards and endless warehouses that store things like the Lost Ark.
It's a little less glamorous than all that, though.
The government has an unending need for mathematicians. Providing reliable statistics and data has become a core function of the federal government and few people realize just how much America depends on Washington to do that job well. From the unemployment numbers to the national Census to food safety statistics and CDC disease rates, someone has to process the data and make sure the numbers look good.
When someone tells you that the unemployment rate has gone down or a pack of well-meaning nitwits has caused a measles outbreak, you can thank a general mathematician/statistician.
• Chief Engineer: $150,802
Chief engineers work on ships.
Most civilian chief engineers are employed by NOAA, the National Oceanic, and Atmosphere Administration. They keep the engines running. The engines, the lights, the pumps and pretty much everything else that separates a ship from a pretty lawn ornament on the Pacific Ocean.
While a chief engineer needs to know how everything on his or her vessel works, most of the time this is an administrative role. They lead the engineering team on the ship, although let's be honest. You'll probably never find one on duty without grease on her hands.
• Astronomy and Space Scientist: $141,981
Fifty years ago America put a man on the moon. A Navy pilot flew the shuttle, but it was the astronomy and space scientists who put him there.
Researchers in this position study the skies to find what's out there. They plan missions to help land on other planets and study asteroids. When Earth builds its asteroid defenses to make sure that humans don't go the way of the dinosaurs, they'll be the ones who quietly prevent that extinction event. All that talk lately of going to Mars? It's the space scientists who'll plan that mission and the astronomers who study the path there.
Their job is to look up, blink, then figure it all out.
• Program Manager: $141,594
Come up with a less descriptive name. We dare you.
But the truth is, a program manager is just that: This is someone who manages programs. The government hires program managers at every level to oversee and lead large, complicated projects that need someone competent at the helm. From the IRS to the Forest Service to the Department of Energy, program managers are one of the most common jobs in the federal government. (Literally. According to Federal Pay, this is the 30th most-hired job on the U.S. payroll.)
This is a general management position. A program manager oversees a team and makes sure that the work, any work, gets done.