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The Rumored Perks of Congressional Service

I am sure that ridiculously false information, conspiracy theories amplified in the face of facts that demolish them and outright lies that get repeated ad nauseam have been facts of life for millenniums. But these universals have become more potent and more long-lasting in the Internet age. And one set of myths that keep stubbornly resurrecting themselves on the Web are about Congress.

I have largely ignored or dismissed a viral email that has been popping up for months now. But when it was sent to me by a former professor of mine — a really smart and sophisticated guy now retired in the San Diego area — it made me realize how much of a problem we have when something that sounds plausible on the surface but is flat-out false gets into the mainstream.

Here is the gist of the viral email, with the most damaging assertions in italics:

“No one has been able to explain to me why young men and women serve in the U.S. Military for 20 years, risking their lives protecting freedom, and only get 50% of their pay. While politicians hold their political positions in the safe confines of the capital, protected by these same men and women, and receive full pay retirement after serving one term.

“Monday on Fox news they learned that the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans. ...

“For too long we have been too complacent about the workings of Congress. Many citizens had no idea that members of Congress could retire with the same pay after only one term, that they specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment) while ordinary citizens must live under those laws. The latest is to exempt themselves from the Healthcare Reform ... in all of its forms.”

Here are some actual facts. On pensions, from a CRS report:

“Congressional pensions, like those of other federal employees, are financed through a combination of employee and employer contributions. … Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at age 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.

“As of October 1, 2006, 413 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service. Of this number, 290 had retired under [the Civil Service Retirement System] and were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. A total of 123 Members had retired with service under both CSRS and [the Federal Employees Retirement System] or with service under FERS only. Their average annual pension was $35,952 in 2006.”

On the Fox News assertion about student loans, this from factcheck.org (responding to dozens of inquiries):

“Are members of Congress exempt from repaying student loans?

“Are members’ families exempt from having to pay back student loans?

“Are children of members of Congress exempted from repaying their student loans?

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