Monday, March 14, 2005

a fact about congressional pensions

This piece has been circulating on the Internet since April 2000. So much of it is outdated, inaccurate, or misleading, it's difficult to know where to begin.

· It is not true that Congressmen do not pay into the Social Security fund. Since 1984 they have paid into the fund just as most everyone else does. (A few odd exceptions to the Social Security program still exist, both inside and outside of government, but not for members of Congress.)

· It was true prior to 1984 that Congressmen did not pay into the Social Security fund because they participated in a separate program for civil servants (the Civil Service Retirement System, or CSRS), but that program was closed to government employees hired after 1983:

In 1983, Public Law 98-21 required Social Security coverage for federal civilian employees first hired after 1983 and closed the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) to new federal employees and Members of Congress. All incumbent Members of Congress were required to be covered by Social Security, regardless of when they entered Congress. Members who had participated in CSRS before 1984 could elect to stay in that plan in addition to being covered by Social Security or elect coverage under an 'offset plan' that integrates CSRS and Social Security. Under the CSRS Offset Plan, an individual's contributions to CSRS and their pension benefits from that plan are reduced ('offset') by the amount of their contributions to, and benefits from, Social Security.

· It is not true that Congressmen "continue to draw their same pay, until they die." The size of their pensions is determined by a number of factors (primarily length of service, but also factors such as when they joined Congress, their age at retirement, their salary, and the pension options they chose when they enrolled in the retirement system) and by law cannot exceed 80% of their salary at the time of their retirement.

· It is not true that Congressmen "paid nothing in on any kind of retirement," and that their pension money "comes right out of the General Fund." Whether members of Congress participate in the older Civil Service Retirement System or the newer Federal Employees' Retirement System (FERS), their pensions are funded through a combination of general tax provisions and contributions from the participants. Right now, members of Congress in the FERS plan must pay 1.3% of their salary to FERS and 6.2% in Social Security taxes.

It is true that, if current pension levels and cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for Congress members continue to apply in the future, some former members of Congress could conceivably collect millions of dollars in annuities over the course of their lifetimes. However, the huge dollar amounts bandied about in e-mails like the ones quoted above are based upon extreme cases: those of politicians who entered Congress at a relatively early age, served for several decades, and retired while still young enough to potentially live for another several decades. These cases are the rare exceptions, based upon the hypothetical assumption that a few long-serving members of Congress who retired while in their mid-50s will live well past the age of 80. (Even the person who collects a modest salary/pension of $40,000 per year stands to take in a million dollars over the course of 25 years.)

As of 1998, the average annuity for retired members of Congress was $50,616 for those who retired under CSRS and $46,908 for those who retired under FERS. Those figures are quite good (about 2-3 times better than the pension collected by the average worker), but not quite the highway robbery these e-mails make them out to be.

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