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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.
“Those were not my most brilliant financial decisions, I might admit,” Coble said, stating that the decision to decline a pension will prevent him from being able to continue his health care coverage when he retires. “But I felt like the taxpayers are paying my salary, and I don’t know that they need to contribute to the pension.”
Under the FERS — which covers all federal employees — Congress, as the “employer,” and Members each contribute funds to the pension plan.
According to the CRS, in 2011, Members covered by the FERS will contribute 1.3 percent of their salaries to the pension program, and Congress will pay another 17.9 percent of salary costs. Members also pay another 6.2 percent of their earnings to Social Security.
Members may also contribute up to $16,500 in pre-tax dollars to their TSP accounts in 2011, and they may receive up to 5 percent in matching funds from their “employer.” Each Member receives 1 percent in matching contributions from Congress, regardless of whether they contribute.
Members elected before 1984 may participate in a different pension plan: the Civil Service Retirement System.
Each retirement plan requires Members to remain in Congress for five years before they are eligible to receive a benefit at retirement age. Both plans allow Members to take full retirement at 62, but ex-lawmakers may qualify for a full or reduced pension as young as 50 depending on their length of service.
As of October 2009, of the 455 former Members drawing federal pensions, 275 retired under the CSRS and received an average income of $69,000, while another 180 retired under both programs or the FERS alone and received an average pension of $40,000, according to the CRS.
A Roll Call review of Members who left Congress during or after the 111th Congress found more than three dozen lawmakers who could immediately begin to draw their full pensions and more than a dozen others who could potentially draw a reduced pension at an earlier age.
There is no public data on actual pensions paid to individual ex-Members, although payments are sometimes made visible when lawmakers are elected to state offices and are required to disclose personal financial data.
Former Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D), now the governor of Hawaii, reported in January that he draws a federal pension for his service in Congress that paid $25,000 to $50,000 in 2010. Abercrombie resigned in February 2010 and was sworn into the governor’s office in December.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in November that former Rep. and now-Gov. Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia will receive a Congressional pension of $52,000.