WASHINGTON – Members of Congress convicted of serious crimes would lose their taxpayer-paid pensions, sometimes totaling more than $100,000 a year, under a measure unanimously approved by the Senate Friday.
The 87-0 vote to deprive lawbreaking lawmakers of their retirement benefits was part of a comprehensive ethics and lobbying bill that the Senate has taken up as its first piece of legislation in the new Democratic-controlled Congress.
"There's something that really grates in the notion that you can put the public's trust and the public's business up for sale and then walk away and have the people that you betrayed turn around and pay for you to be able to have a fat pension," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., author of the amendment.
Kerry said there were at least 20 lawmakers convicted of serious crimes receiving pensions, some as high as $125,000 a year.
Currently, a lawmaker can lose his or her pension only if convicted of crimes such as treason or espionage. The Kerry provision would extend that to cases of bribery, conspiracy to defraud the United States and perjury.
Kerry said the measure was in part inspired by the case last year of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who was sentenced to eight years in prison for accepting bribes from defense contractors.
The provision is not retroactive and would not affect Cunningham, who would be entitled to an initial pension of as much as $64,000, according to calculations by the National Taxpayers Union.
"Given the momentum on the House side, this just might be the year that Congress purges one of its most brazen perks," said Pete Sepp of the NTU, which has led other advocacy groups in urging Congress to deny pensions to members convicted of crimes.
The NTU, which follows federal pension issues, said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., who served 15 months in prison after pleading guilty in 1996 to two mail fraud charges, is potentially receiving benefits, after cost-of-living adjustments, of $125,000 a year.
The House last spring approved similar language, as part of a lobbying and ethics package, to cut off the pensions of lawmakers convicted of bribery or acting as a foreign agent. It died when no agreement could be reached with the Senate on the package.
Kerry said his provision, also sponsored by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Col., would pertain to taxpayer-paid federal pensions. The lawmaker would get refunds of any personal contributions and retain benefits from 401(k)-type plans. There's also an innocent spouse provision that allows spouses to receive benefits as long as they cooperate with authorities.
The Senate also voted 81-6 in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would increase fines from the current $50,000 to $200,000 for lobbyists who violate lobbying disclosure law.