Lawmakers Savor Retirement, Health Benefits

Members of Congress occasionally lose elections, but they never lose retirement and health benefits that most Americans can only envy.

A lawmaker who retires at 60 after just 12 years in office can count on receiving an immediate pension of $25,000 a year and lifetime benefits that could total more than $800,000.

That doesn't include 401(k) benefits. And any member who lasts five years in office also can get taxpayer-subsidized health care until he or she reaches Medicare age.

Congressional pensions tend to be far more generous than those offered in the private sector. Benefits start earlier and — unlike most private pension plans promising a fixed monthly payment based on years worked and pay — come with annual cost-of-living increases. They also accrue a third faster than the average plan offered by private companies.

Any member of Congress with five years of service is eligible for full benefits at 62. Those with 20 years in office can get full benefits at 50, younger than most workers.

Cost-of-living adjustments, a shield against inflation, "haven't been slightly common since the 1980s" in the private sector, said John Ehrhardt, an expert in corporate retirement programs at the Seattle-based consulting and actuarial firm Milliman. He said COLAs could add 25 percent to the value of a congressional plan over its lifetime.

It doesn't matter what a lawmaker does before or after leaving office. Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who was sentenced to eight years and four months in jail after pleading guilty to bribery charges this year, is still entitled to an annual pension of about $36,000 for his 15 years in the House. That doesn't include his military pension or 401(k) benefits.

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who is resigning after 22 years, will qualify for an initial pension of $56,000, provided he joined the pension system when he first entered Congress. DeLay could get pension payments of nearly $2 million over his expected lifetime, according to the National Taxpayers Union, which tracks congressional pension issues.

Lawmakers also have the peace of mind of knowing their federally backed plan will be there when they retire.

"I don't think that many people in Congress would be quite so indifferent to the demise of the defined-benefit plan if they didn't have such a robust plan themselves," said James Klein, president of the American Benefits Council, which represents companies with pension plans.

Congress is now working on pension legislation aimed at shoring up the defined-benefit plans available to some 44 million employees and retirees, but there's no stopping the trend of companies shrinking their plans or not letting new hires join them.

Employers also are switching to less costly cash balance plans, under which employees generally receive one lump-sum payment when they retire or leave the company.

Rep. Bernard Sanders of I-Vt., is a critic of the cash balance plans that the House bill would encourage. In 2003 he asked the Congressional Research Service to see what would happen to lawmakers' benefits under such an approach.

"The result would have been huge cutbacks for some members," Sanders said in a recent interview.

For example, say a representative retired at 56 at the end of 2002 with 18 years of service. At 62 he or she would have a defined benefit plan worth $608,000. A comparable cash balance plan would be worth $251,000.

Under current rules, lawmakers who serve 30 years will receive a yearly pension of 44 percent of their annual pay, which this year is $165,200. That doesn't include their Social Security benefits and what they get back from their 401(k) plans. Like other federal workers in the Thrift Savings Plan, the government's equivalent of a 401(k), lawmakers may invest up to $15,000 yearly, more if they're over 50, and receive a contribution from the government equal to 5 percent of their pay.

Older lawmakers, who were in office before the rules were changed two decades ago, can receive even higher pensions, though their Social Security is less.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who is retiring at the end of this session after three decades in the House, will receive a pension of $119,000 a year, according to the National Taxpayers Union, an interest group that keeps track. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, a senator for 38 years, would be eligible for $125,000 if he retired at the end of his current term. He has a higher salary as Senate Pro Tem.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a multimillionaire physician who is stepping down after 12 years, can expect an initial pension of $23,000 in 2007. With his thrift plan investments, Frist's estimated lifetime benefits will be around $1 million, the NTU says.

Former presidents, for comparison, receive a taxable pension equal to the base pay of Cabinet secretaries, currently $183,500.

The Congressional Research Service, in a study of member retirement benefits updated last year, quoted a Senate report from 1946, the year Congress extended the federal pension system to lawmakers:

The retirement plan, it said, "would contribute to independence of thought and action (and be) an inducement for retirement for those of retiring age or with other infirmities."

"Sixty years of results have shown that experiment to be an utter failure," commented Peter Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. The average age of senators in the current Congress is 60.4 years, the oldest in history, according to the CRS. The average age of House members is 55 years, also probably the oldest ever, the CRS said.

Congress' pension system was overhauled in 1983, when the Social Security Act was changed to require federal employees, including members of Congress, to participate in Social Security. Those elected in 1984 or later, under what is now called the Federal Employees' Retirement System or FERS, get smaller pensions than their more senior colleagues. But they also get bigger Social Security checks.

The CRS said that as of October 2002, there were 340 retired members receiving pensions under the pre-1984 system averaging $55,800 a year. There were also 71 who retired with service under both systems or only FERS, with annual benefits of $41,900. The total cost of the pension program for members of Congress is estimated at $25 million a year.

Sepp said his group's figures show that lawmakers' contributions to the FERS defined benefit plan cover about 20 percent of the typical lifetime payout. Lawmakers send 1.3 percent of their annual pay into the FERS pension plan, and the government adds 15.8 percent. Other federal workers contribute 0.8 percent, and the government adds 10.7 percent of their pay.

One lawmaker who won't be getting the benefits is Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who since his election in 1984 has declined participation in either the pension or the thrift savings plan and has tried, without success, to eliminate or scale them back.

"He thought taxpayers should not have to subsidize retirement programs for people who run for public office," said his spokesman, Ed McDonald. But he's "given up on trying to reform the system."

The recent flurry of legislative action in the wake of the Cunningham and lobbying controversies has produced several proposals to deny pensions to those convicted of felonies. Currently, an act of treason is one of the few ways a House member or senator can lose a pension.

Members of Congress also participate in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program or FEHB, which covers some 8 million federal workers. The FEHB is lauded as a model for a large-scale comprehensive health care plan, and lawmakers are frequently criticized for failing to come up with a comparable system for the tens of millions of Americans without adequate health care.

The key ingredient of the FEHB, said Robert Moffit, director of health policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, is "the government doesn't force you into some kind of straitjacket."

Participants choose from about a dozen fee-for-service plans, plus several hundred HMO plans and, more recently, health savings accounts paired with high-deductible health plans.

The government pays an average 72 percent of premiums, less than the average 82 percent that employers in the private sector paid in 2003, according to a Labor Department survey. Retiring legislators, as well as other federal workers, can continue to participate after just five years of enrollment, and the government continues to pick up 72 percent of the premiums.

Once 65 and eligible for Medicare, they can still buy so-called wraparound plans to fill any gaps in coverage.

Current members can also purchase top-of-the-line care, using their FEHB benefits, at Washington's military hospitals, and for an annual fee, now $480, can drop by the Attending Physician's Office in the first floor of the U.S. Capitol for X-rays, EKGs, physical exams and consultations.