Rep. Jeff Landry (center) and other GOP freshmen found its easier said than done when attempting to return unused office budget money.
“It is inexcusable that American taxpayers are footing the bill,” Quayle said.
Griffin has sponsored legislation to end the pension program entirely for recently elected and future Members who have not yet qualified for the benefits.
But Members who entered office after 1987 and have served in Congress for at least five years can’t really leave FERS. Though they can decide upon reaching retirement to refuse the money, they still have to contribute 1.3 percent of their monthly salary into the system for as long as they serve.
In the meantime, all they can do is pledge not to take the money later on and submit a letter to the House Chief Administrative Officer stating their intentions. It’s a promise Members say they take seriously, but it’s not a binding one.
Lawmakers say they are frustrated, if not entirely surprised, about the rules preventing them from “leading by example.” After all, they reason, they came to Washington promising to usher in a new era of fiscal responsibility, and what better way to do so than on a personal level.
“This place wasn’t set up for folks who want to spend less money,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), who was among the GOP lawmakers who hoped Boehner would help them do their bit to pay down the debt and has since learned it wouldn’t be possible.
“There are a lot of institutional problems here. I often say it’s not a Democrat problem, it’s not a Republican problem, it’s a Washington problem,” Huelskamp said.
Those on the outside looking in said lawmakers shouldn’t feel the system is conspiring against them.
Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, described how the federal pension system was originally designed, in part, to ensure fairness: By requiring every employee to accept a pension plan, employers could not pick and choose who received benefits — or be accused of picking and choosing.
“I would think the same thing as those Members. ‘Hey, I want that, I’m going to do that,’” Binder said. “But you run up against the reality of the many, many reasons why we construct these federal programs in the first place. They’re complicated, they have layers of bureaucracy and some of that is unintended consequence.”
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a Roll Call contributing writer, was a little less forgiving.
“It’s just the nature of the rules,” Ornstein said. “It wasn’t ever ‘Aha! We can make sure nobody gives money back here in a timely fashion!’ … Most of these [Members’] gestures are nothing but symbolic, and that impediments are in the way of symbolic gestures just doesn’t bother me.”
The lawmakers in question, though, don’t have a problem with being symbols.
“Here’s the thing,” said Rep. Bobby Schilling (Ill.), who said he will refuse his pension. “We’re not going to get everything we want to change, but we will lead by example. … The key thing here is to continue to move forward, knowing you’re not going to get the whole pie, but a little piece at a time.”
Rep. Bill Cassidy has his blood drawn by Alesha Barbour during a free hepatitis screening in the Rayburn House Office Building hosted by the Congressional Viral Hepatitis Caucus to recognize "National Viral Hepatitis Testing Day."
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