Congress

Senators advance effort to curb congressional pensions

Measure that would allow lawmakers to opt out clears committee

A bill by Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., that would allow lawmakers to opt out of their congressional pensions made it through committee Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Any member of Congress who has served for at least five years is eligible for a pension, but a proposal to allow lawmakers to opt out of their congressional pension while keeping other benefits made it through committee Wednesday. 

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill by voice vote for floor consideration, but it’s not clear if it will get there. Heading into the committee markup, the measure — sponsored by Indiana Republican Mike Braun — didn’t have any co-sponsors.

“That is probably not going to get a ton of support,” Braun admitted to CQ Roll Call.

He said the existing pensions system is rewarding lawmakers, “but not necessarily generating great results.”

Braun’s bill, dubbed the End Plush Retirements Act, would allow members of both the House and Senate to decline their pensions without having to give up their health care benefits or access to the Thrift Savings Plan for federal employees.

“Currently, the way it’s written, you cannot get health care or participate in a 401(k) plan if you opt out of the pension,” Braun said. “It’s kind of like an all or nothing.”

The Indiana Republican hopes that creating flexibility for lawmakers to keep their retirement savings plan and health care benefits, while giving them the option to opt out of the pension, will be seen as a reasonable option.

While Braun would like to see the congressional pension eliminated completely, this proposal attempts to strike a balance.

Earlier this year, he teamed up with Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott to introduce a bill to end congressional pensions for future lawmakers.

That proposal drew attention because both co-sponsors are wealthy, even by Senate standards. Scott reported his net worth at $232 million at the end of 2017. Combined with the estimated holdings of his wife, Anne, he could be worth more than $500 million. Braun is also a multimillionaire.

Former lawmakers are eligible for a pension at age 62 if they served at least five years, at age 50 if they served at least 20 years, or at any age if they served more than 25 years. A relic of a bygone era for many American workers, pensions vary in their value, depending on the years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. That means lawmakers with long tenures in leadership will keep the pay bump those positions come with. A member’s pension cannot exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary.

At the start of fiscal 2017, there were 611 retired members of Congress receiving federal pensions based in part or fully on their congressional service.

Braun doesn’t have any illusions about the hard road ahead for his pension proposal. When asked what he expects now that the bill has cleared the committee stage, he didn’t make any promises.

“That gets into the discussion of what’s going to actually make it through in a politically charged environment like this,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot making it through.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.