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(DV) Allen: Congress' Cushy Pension Plan -- What They Have That You Don't







Congress’ Cushy Pension Plan: 
What They Have That You Don’t

by Joe Allen
February 2, 2006
First Published in Socialist Worker

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The list is becoming endless. Enron, WorldCom, United Airlines, Delphi, Verizon, IBM and many more major corporations have abandoned, bankrupted, stolen, cut back or “redefined” the pension plans of their employees.


When workers try to collect in the future, they’ll find their pension benefits drastically cut back -- or, in some cases, eliminated altogether. “Things are not looking good for retirees with the collapse of the defined benefit plans,” said Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University. “In 20 years, the only people with these plans will be government employees.”


Old-age poverty is once again a thing to fear in America.


But in Washington, the politicians who let this corporate hurricane destroy our pensions enjoy a retirement savings system and other benefits and perks that ordinary workers couldn’t imagine, even in the best of times.


In 1958, Congress passed a law to provide former presidents with an annual lifetime pension. The president’s pension starts with an annual payment, currently running at $180,100, which they can collect starting the day after they leave office. They also get as part of their “retirement package” allowances for offices expenses, mail privileges and travel funds.


In 2006, the four former presidents -- Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton -- will cost us nearly $3 million in pensions and allowances. Last year, the most expensive of the former presidents, Bill Clinton, cost $1.1 million. None of the others got less than half a million.


And remember: all four of these men rake in big money from speaking fees, writing books, serving as corporate directors, and so on.


At the same time, Congress also made sure that it is virtually impossible -- short of treason or something vaguely called “crimes against the United States” -- for a president to lose their pension.


The most notorious example is Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign from office in 1974, or face impeachment for crimes related to the Watergate scandal. Nixon, who was pardoned soon after by his successor Gerald Ford, collected a pension for the next 20 years.


Corruption, obstruction of justice, political repression ad prosecuting illegal wars are not “crimes against the United States,” because they seem to be part of the president’s job.


What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. According to the government watchdog group Common Cause, Congress has had a sweet deal for a long time when it comes to its members retiring.


Many members who recently left Congress will draw more than $1 million over their lifetimes. Some could haul in more than $2 million.


Not only is it virtually impossible for members of Congress to lose their pensions -- no matter what criminal activity they may get caught at -- but their pensions can grow over time because of generous cost-of-living adjustments, something that almost never happens for the rest of us.


Members of Congress are covered by two pension plans. Those elected before 1984 are in the Civil Service Retirement System; those elected in 1984 and after are in the Federal Employees' Retirement System. It takes five years of service for representatives, senators or their staffs to become vested in the congressional pension system.


Members of Congress and their staff can retire with a full, guaranteed pension at age 50 after 25 years of service. Most American workers must wait until age 65. A retiring member of Congress with 25 years in office would start out collecting roughly $90,000 in their first year.


And that doesn’t include the federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), a defined-contribution plan much like a 401(k) account. Legislators can contribute up to 5 percent of their salaries to a TSP -- and taxpayers match it nearly dollar for dollar. Members of Congress only started paying Social Security taxes in 1984, but they also get to collect Social Security benefits.


As of 2002, there were 411 retired members receiving benefits averaging $55,788 a year.


This includes plenty of corrupt members of Congress found guilty of a felony (usually taking bribes) or defrauding their constituents.


James Traficant, a former member of Congress from Ohio, was found guilty of bribery and tax evasion in 2002. He will collect a pension of $38,000 a year. Dan Rostenkowski, the former representative from Chicago convicted of stealing taxpayer funds, enjoys a taxpayer-funded pension of more than $100,000 a year.


John Dowdy went to jail for perjury, but since leaving the House in 1970, he’s received $1 million from his taxpayer-funded pension. The latest example: Randy “Duke” Cunningham will keep his pension despite being indicted for taking $2.5 million in bribes.

Along with the corrupt, taxpayers will be paying for the plush retirement of the mediocre and stupid for years to come.


Former Sen. Tom Daschle, the nondescript Democratic minority leader in the U.S. Senate who failed to get re-elected in 2004, will collect $96,000 a year. Former House member Gary Condit of California, who became famous for his affair with murdered government intern Shandra Levy, will collect over $700,000 in pension pay-outs for the rest his life.


And this selective list doesn’t include former members of Congress who commit perfectly legal crimes -- by walking across the street when they “retire” and becoming lobbyists for the industries they used to regulate.


There are plenty of other benefits and perks if you’re a member of Congress. If you aren’t feeling well, for example, you can make an on-the-spot visit to a physician. With eight offices, the Capitol Hill health care offices are open to members of Congress for a yearly fee of just $453.32.


Members of Congress get full platinum-level health coverage for themselves and their families -- including choosing their own doctors, seeing the specialists they need, and full dental care.


And while taxpayers are locked into the dwindling benefits of Medicare, members of Congress who retire continue to enjoy a taxpayer-funded health care plan.


Nice work if you can get it


Can’t get a raise? Try running for Congress. Since 1988, congressional pay has increased from $89,500 a year to the current pay of $165,200 a year. That puts members of Congress in the top 5 percent income bracket in the U.S.


Since 2004, Congress has raised its annual salary by $7,100. Not bad considering that half of working Americans makes under $32,000 a year. In the last 15 years, members of the House of Representatives have gotten pay raises no less than 10 times. Senators got salary hikes 11 times.


As if they need the money. In 2003, there were at least 40 millionaires in the Senate and 120 of them in the House.

Joe Allen writes for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.