Many Await Fat Pension Payouts

Posted December 3, 2004 at 6:15pm

Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), who lost his battle for a 19th term last month, just one day before his birthday, called his defeat “God’s birthday present.”

Come January, the 74-year-old lawmaker is set to receive another gift, this time from the taxpayers: a six-figure annual pension.

After 36 years in Congress, Crane will rake in about $114,102 a year beginning in 2005, according to calculations by the National Taxpayers Union, an anti-tax group that closely tracks Congressional retirement benefits.

If Crane lives well into his mid-80s — as actuarial tables predict he will — then the Illinois Republican’s estimated lifetime benefits will approach $1.8 million, with taxpayers covering about 80 percent of the tab.

And Crane isn’t the only one with a nice retirement to look forward to, according to the NTU.

Retiring Sens. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and John Breaux (D-La.) will also receive the maximum pension a lawmaker is entitled to — about $114,100 annually.

Breaux has served in the Senate since 1987, and before that he served 14 years in the House and spent four years working as a Congressional aide — all of which counts toward his retirement package. Since Breaux is turning only 61 in March, his estimated lifetime benefits could eventually exceed $4 million.

Hollings, for his part, was first elected to the Senate in 1966 and served in the military from 1942 to 1945. The South Carolinian, who will be 83 when he retires, could potentially earn about $1 million in lifetime benefits.

Crane, Breaux and Hollings are especially fortunate: They are among roughly a dozen current retirees who have served long enough and who are old enough to receive the maximum retirement benefits available under law to Members of Congress.

Members are eligible to receive a pension if they are at least 62 and have at least five years of service under their belt; if they are 50 years or older and have served for two decades; or if they are of any age but have completed at least 25 years.

Members can participate in one of two separate pension plans, depending on what year they were elected to Congress. The system may result in one of four possible retirement arrangements.

Members elected before 1984, such as Crane, Breaux and Hollings, are assumed to be participating in the more generous Civil Service Retirement System. Those elected in 1984 or later typically participate in the Federal Employees’ Retirement System. (See box for a more detailed explanation.)

In addition, all Members began paying into the Social Security system in 1984. (Previously, they could opt out while serving in Congress, but now, participation is required of every Member.) Members are also allowed to participate in the Thrift Savings Plan, a voluntary retirement system open to all federal employees that operates like a federally managed 401(k) plan.

The consequence of these rules is that Members may be covered by one of four different retirement arrangements, according to the Congressional Research Service:

• Full coverage under both CSRS and Social Security.

• The CSRS Offset plan, which includes both CSRS and Social Security, but with CSRS contributions and benefits reduced by Social Security contributions and benefits.

• FERS plus Social Security.

• Social Security alone.

NTU says that it is not uncommon for a lawmaker’s pension to exceed his or her final salary, thanks to cost of living increases — but it usually takes a few years of retirement for that to happen.

Pension amounts for Members are pegged to total years of service and an average of the highest three years of salary. However, for lawmakers participating in CSRS, the initial benefits are capped at 80 percent of the final Congressional salary.

Since pension-benefit information isn’t made public, NTU makes its estimates based on publicly available formulas as well as several assumptions, such as the amounts of future cost-of-living-adjustments.

Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.), who is retiring after 11 terms in office, is estimated to receive an annuity of $76,600 and lifetime benefits exceeding $1.8 million.

Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who lost to Republican Rep. Pete Sessions on Nov. 2, should be able to cushion the blow with a $93,300 annuity. After 26 years in Congress and 27 years of federal service, Frost, now 62, will likely pull in close to $3 million in lifetime benefits.

Fellow Lone Star State Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D), who lost his seat to Randy Neugebauer (R), is also eligible for a full and immediate pension after 26 years in office. The 66-year-old lawmaker will receive approximately $90,500 during his first year of retirement, according to NTU, and his lifetime benefits could approach $2.3 million.

Retiring Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will also see his annuity kick in next year at an estimated $85,700.

Even shorter tenures on Capitol Hill can yield healthy pensions for those prepared to wait.

Retiring Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) may have lost on the vice presidential campaign trail, but in 2015, once he hits 62, he’ll be eligible to receive an estimated $14,200 a year for a mere six years in office.

At that rate, NTU estimates that Edwards’ total lifetime benefits could approach $400,000.

In 2022, another one-termer, retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), will be eligible for an initial benefit of approximately $14,200. The 44-year-old multimillionaire could accrue lifetime benefits of roughly $370,400.

Two other millionaires with approximately two decades of service — Reps. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) and Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) — will start receiving government annuities in January.

With 20 years of federal service, the 77-year-old Ballenger will receive an estimated annuity of $45,300, while Houghton, at 78, will receive about $43,900 per year for 19 years of government service.

Whether they are covered by CSRS or FERS, Members apparently have a substantial leg up over the average American nearing retirement.

In 2000, the average annual pension income for a man was $14,232, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. Women received an average annuity of $8,734.

And those are just the Americans who have a pension. According to the Current Population Survey conducted by the Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about half of the work force was covered by a pension in 2000.

Lawmakers even do better than many corporate executives.

A 1995 Wall Street Journal survey of private-sector pension consultants found that the pension benefit for a 60-year-old Member of Congress with 30 years in office is about $99,175, compared to the $56,220 that an executive with similar similar annual income can expect.

However, Members of Congress are paid salaries analagous to mid-level executives, rather than CEOs. CEOs typically earn far more lucrative pensions than Members of Congress do.

On the other hand, lifetime Congressional pension totals tend to be higher than those of similarly paid corporate executives. Lifetime pension income at the 95th percentile — which is where lawmakers would rank based on their salary — is $656,000 for American pension-holders at large, according to Edward Wolff, an economics professor at New York University.

By contrast, even Members whose lifetime benefits are lower — such as Edwards and Fitzgerald — will effectively have earned pension income at a much higher rate than private-sector employees. A private-sector employee who expects $656,000 in benefits will presumably have spent many years on the job, rather than the six spent by Edwards or Fitzgerald.

Pete Sepp, NTU’s vice president for communications, believes Congress should retire its “defined benefit” pension plans and rely instead on the Thrift Savings Plan, a “defined contribution” plan which Members pay into by paycheck deductions. That plan, Sepp said, more closely reflects the prevailing model in the private sector.

“The defined benefit has to go,” Sepp said, noting that as lawmakers grapple with reforming Social Security — which provided more than half of total retirement income for all Americans 65 and older in 2001, according to the EPI — they need to look critically at their own retirement plans. “It’s right on their doorstep.”

As of Oct. 1, 1998, 413 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or at least in part on their Congressional service, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Of those 413 ex-Members, 367 had retired under CSRS and were receiving an average annual pension of $50,616. Another 46 had retired with service under both CSRS and FERS or just FERS and were receiving an annual pension of $46,908.

In fiscal 2002, there were 411 former Members receiving pensions — 340 who retired under the CSRS and 71 retired under FERS — and convicts are no exception to the rule.

While there was some effort last decade to strip Members convicted of felonies of their pensions, it never caught fire, and only those convicted of “high crime” such as treason automatically lose their benefits.