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Taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for at least $26 million in pensions for former Members of Congress this year, even as Congress embraces austerity by curbing its annual pay raises and voting to slash office budgets.
That estimate, drawn from data published by the Congressional Research Service, is based on payments to 455 former Members as of October 2009 and doesn’t include potential payouts to dozens of newly retired lawmakers who are eligible to draw their pensions.
While Members have taken aim at Congress’ internal spending habits in recent months — lawmakers voted against an automatic pay raise in the current fiscal year and the House voted last month to cut its office budgets by 5 percent — the Congressional pension program is rarely mentioned on Capitol Hill.
“Along with the franking privilege, pensions represent a valuable perk to both political parties that lawmakers don’t want to touch,” National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp said.
Aside from passing a measure in 2007 to strip Members convicted of certain felonies while in office of their Congressional pensions, neither the House nor Senate has pursued major changes to their retirement program since the mid-1990s.
Rep. Howard Coble, among the leaders of a 1995 effort to overhaul the pension program, acknowledged that he eventually abandoned his legislative effort, although he continues to oppose the retirement plan.
“It was tilting at windmills. Nothing was going to happen,” the North Carolina Republican said Tuesday. “I think it would have been perceived to be showboating, to go to the well of the House two or three times a year.”
Coble said he does not anticipate reviving his legislation to end the pension in the new Congress: “In order for it not to be an exercise in futility, you’d have to have some reasonable chance of passage, and the media at large would have to weigh in.”
While both freshman Reps. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) have publicly announced they will not participate in the pension program, neither has introduced legislation proposing changes to the retirement plan for their colleagues.
It also remains unclear whether Schilling and Walsh will actually be able to decline the retirement benefits.
Congress last reformed its pension program in the mid-1980s. Members elected after 1984, like other federal employees, are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System, which comprises Social Security payments, a monthly pension based on tenure and pay history, and the Thrift Savings Plan, which is similar to private 401(k) accounts.
Members were able to decline to participate in the program until 2003, according to the CRS, when Congress prohibited lawmakers from opting out.
Coble said he believes he is the only Member to decline both the pension benefit and the TSP.