Members Get Social Security Checks

Posted June 17, 2008 at 6:37pm

When Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) turned 66 last September, he did what many Americans his age do: He applied to receive Social Security payments.

That put the Illinois lawmaker among the 50 million expected to receive Social Security payments in 2008, according to the agency that oversees the program, but it also puts him in a much smaller group: the handful of Members who are actively reaping the benefits of the New Deal program.

According to recently released financial disclosure reports, at least three Members received Social Security benefits in 2007: Davis and Reps. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.), 69, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), 72.

Although numerous rank-and-file Members receive funds from state, local or private pensions, it appears that few lawmakers opt into the federal program.

Davis said he did so after being notified that he would become eligible for the program last year.

“That’s all the motivation there would have been,” said Davis, who reported receiving $12,362 in 2006. “And I could use it. I needed it.”

Under federal law, any qualified individual, including Members, can begin to draw Social Security benefits at age 62 — although the amount paid is reduced based on current salary — but after a person reaches full retirement age, individuals can collect full benefits with no limit on how much they continue to earn. “Full retirement age” varies depending on the year someone was born, ranging from 65 for those born in 1937 and earlier to 67 for those born in 1960 and after.

According to the Congressional Research Service, at the outset of the 110th Congress, the average age of lawmakers in both chambers was 57.

Calculated independently, the House average is about 56, while the Senate climbed to about 62. Despite the age gap, however, none of those Senators who filed 2007 disclosures — a handful have sought extensions — listed Social Security benefits.

Hooley’s office did not return a telephone call Tuesday, but financial disclosures appear to show she began accepting the benefits in 2007, when she turned 68. The Oregon lawmaker, who will retire at the end of the 110th Congress, did not list a Social Security payment in her 2006 filings. She received $21,098 in 2007.

Johnson’s office could not provide comment by press time, but records indicate she has been enrolled in Social Security since at least 2006. The Texan reported receiving $18,000 in 2007.

Among the reasons some Members of retirement age may not opt into Social Security benefits is that many state and local public employees — nearly 5 million according to statistics maintained by the White House — are exempt from the program, paying instead into alternative plans.

While those Members would qualify for their state or local pension plans, without at last 10 years of work history in the House or Senate (or other experience outside of state government), they may not qualify for Social Security payments.

But there are Members who served in state or local office but do qualify for Social Security based on their House tenure.

But for those Members who qualify for multiple sets of payments, “It’s almost as if lawmakers are able to get the best of all worlds,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. Sepp noted that Members also qualify for Congressional pensions and a 401(k) program, as well as potential retirement benefits from any employment before their election to Congress.

Both Hooley, a former county commissioner and state Representative, and Johnson, a former Texas legislator, report receiving payments from their respective states. Hooley received $33,704 from Oregon’s public-employee retirement program, while Johnson received $35,000 from the state of Texas as a “legislative pension” in 2007.

Davis did not report additional income, but listed several payments to his spouse, including a pension from the state of Illinois worth $35,973, a salary from his Congressional campaign worth $13,000, Social Security payment of $2,352 and a life insurance payment worth $12,000.

All rank-and-file House and Senate lawmakers earn a $169,300 salary, while the Majority and Minority leaders earn $188,100 and the Speaker earns $217,400.

According to the CRS, House and Senate lawmakers are covered by one of four options for retirement, including Social Security alone, two combinations of the Civil Service Retirement System for those Members elected before 1984 and Social Security, and a combination of the Federal Employee Retirement System for those Members elected after 1984 and Social Security.