US President Barack Obama's administration has unveiled plans for legislation to give capital market regulators and shareholders powers to limit bonus payments to company executives.
The rules could give the government new authority to become involved in compensation packages for top corporate leaders, but would not be used to set salary levels, as some had feared, except for firms getting "exceptional" bailout money.
The White House announced the appointment of a new pay czar, to be known as a "special master," with powers to reject salary plans from firms getting taxpayer help if they are deemed "excessive or inappropriate," officials said.
Kenneth Feinberg, who steered a federal compensation fund for victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, will review payments for executives and the 100 most highly compensated employees of firms which received state aid under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
The companies include giants such as AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, Chrysler and General Motors.
The moves to curtail corporate benefits followed a public outcry earlier this year when big companies, which had received huge public bailouts, made large bonus payments to top executives amid the worst financial crisis in decades.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a statement that a process had begun to bring compensation practices "more tightly in line with the interests of shareholders and reinforcing the stability of firms and the financial system."
They included so called "golden parachutes" paid to top executives, who had to leave when their companies were targeted for acquisitions.
Geithner said the administration would work with Congress to pass legislation giving the Securities Commission powers to require firms to give shareholders a "non-binding" vote on compensation packages.
It would also propose legislation giving the SEC powers to ensure that committees deciding on compensation in companies were "more independent, adhering to standards similar to those in place for audit committees."
At the same time, Geithner said, compensation committees would be given the responsibility and the resources to hire their own independent compensation consultants and outside counsel.
Geithner stressed the authorities were not putting limits on salaries but wanted to develop a benchmark rewarding innovation and what he called "prudent risk taking."
"I want to be clear on what we are not doing. We are not capping pay," Geithner said after a meeting with SEC chief Mary Schapiro and other experts, but rather it was a bid to "better align compensation practices."
Barney Frank, who heads the House of Representatives financial services committee, backed the government's move to allow shareholders a key role in setting overall compensation.
"While it is not the government's role to say that a certain amount is too much, it is very much the right of the people who own the company to speak out if they think excessive compensation is being proposed," he said, proposing that a system of "say-on-pay" piloted in Britain be emulated.
A move to institute such a system in the United States in 2007 stalled in Congress and Frank is optimistic that with Obama's support, "we will be able to enact this important principle into law.
"Recent evidence in England shows that when shareholders are in fact troubled by excessive compensation, say-on-pay is an effective tool for them," he said.
In February, the administration reacted angrily to massive bonus payments for some executives by saying senior officers of firms getting taxpayer bailouts would have total annual compensation capped at 500,000 dollars.
"This financial crisis had many significant causes, but executive compensation practices were a contributing factor," Geithner said.