How Are the Benefits? For Members of Congress, Not Too Shabby

In a down economy, a good benefits package can be hard to find.

But on Capitol Hill, a 401(k) and health plan are just the beginning. The hundreds of candidates vying for a coveted congressional seat this November will earn more than a chance at shaping the nation's legislative priorities if elected -- they'll tap into a mountain of perks that most Fortune 500 companies couldn't begin to rival.

A little-known benefit drew some attention Wednesday after it was reported that the family of the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd will be paid his $193,000 salary next year. That's just the tip of the benefits iceberg that comes with being a venerable member of Congress.

For those entering any of the 535 seats in Congress next year, here's a glance at the world of juicy perks coming their way:

Fun Money: The base salary for a member of Congress is $174,000. But all members enjoy access to a separate piggy bank known as their "allowance." This funding generally goes toward maintaining their offices and building up a legislative entourage. In the House, representatives are allowed to spend more than $900,000 on salaries for up to 18 permanent employees. They get about a quarter-million dollars more for office expenses, including travel, and additional funding for a well-known congressional perk known as "franking." Franking is the term for the mass constituent mail sent out by members of Congress and paid for courtesy of the taxpayer.

Senators enjoy the same privilege but get a much bigger allowance for their office expenses. According to a Congressional Research Service report, the average allocation for fiscal 2010 was more than $3.3 million. Personnel money varies depending on how big of a state a senator represents -- a senator from New York is going to get more than a senator from Montana. But for starters, each senator is given a $500,000 budget to hire up to three legislative assistants.

Nice Digs: A seat in Congress comes with office space -- lots of it. Not only do members move into an office on Capitol Hill, they maintain space in their home districts and states too. For senators, this benefit has a pretty high cap - up to 8,200 square feet. The CRS report said there is "no restriction" on the number of offices they can open in federal buildings in their home states. Plus senators get to shop at the equivalent of Congress' IKEA -- furniture supplied through the Architect of the Capitol. Every senator gets $40,000 -- and potentially more -- for furniture in their home-state offices.

Bonus Tax Deduction: Members of Congress can deduct up to $3,000 for expenses while outside their home districts or states.

Insurance/Retirement: All members of Congress can sign up for the same health plan and life insurance policy available to other federal workers. But there's more. In an age when the 401(k) often becomes a substitute for a pension, representatives and senators enjoy access to both. First, members of Congress can sign up for a 401(k)-style "Thrift Savings Plan," a tax-deferred investment in which members' contributions are matched up to 5 percent.

Then there's Social Security. Then there's the pension plan. The pension payments and eligibility vary -- in a nutshell, members are eligible for an immediate, full pension at age 62 if they've served five years or more; they're eligible at age 50 if they've served 20 years; and they're eligible at any time after they've served 25 years. The annual amount of the pension depends on a lawmaker's salary and the number of years he or she served -- typically the amount is considerably less than a lawmaker's outgoing salary.

Down Time: Perhaps there's no such thing as down time for a member of Congress, what with the constant shuttling back and forth between Washington and their districts, media appearances and constituent meetings. But the work week lately has been relatively sparse. The Senate has averaged about three working days on Capitol Hill - three-and-a-half if you count Monday nights. Plus there are several breaks, which Congress calls "work periods," penciled in the calendar throughout the year. This year, members of Congress returned to their districts for a Presidents Day break, a spring break, a Memorial Day break, an Independence Day break and a summer break. Congress is about to adjourn again until early November so members can campaign. Of course, that's good old-fashioned time off for senators not up for re-election this year.