With lawmakers increasingly eager to pare back federal employees' benefits, maybe it's time to take a closer look at theirs, as well.
Retirement and health care benefits for members of Congress closely resemble those enjoyed by rank-and-file federal employees. But they're sweetened in several crucial ways.
Lawmakers, like federal employees, fall under either the Federal Employees Retirement System or the Civil Service Retirement System. Like federal employees, they receive a defined benefit pension and participate in the 401(k)-like Thrift Savings Plan. Both FERS employees and lawmakers receive an automatic 1 percent agency contribution and matching contributions up to 5 percent in their TSP accounts. (All lawmakers, whether under FERS or CSRS, also pay into Social Security and are in turn eligible for Social Security benefits. Federal employees under FERS also pay into and earn Social Security benefits; rank-and-file CSRS employees do not.)
But the differences start to emerge when one digs into the numbers.
Lawmakers contribute more toward their defined benefit pensions than everyday feds — for FERS lawmakers, half a percentage point more, and a full percentage point more for CSRS. But when they retire, lawmakers' pensions are calculated at much more generous rates.
Federal pensions are derived by multiplying the average of a retiree's three highest annual salaries by his years of service and by a variable pension accrual rate. For FERS lawmakers, the accrual rate is 1.7 percent for their first 20 years of service — far more than the 1 percent or 1.1 percent regular FERS employees receive.
CSRS lawmakers' pensions are calculated at 2.5 percent, whereas regular CSRS employees' accrual rates vary from 1.5 to 2 percent depending on years of service.
And lawmakers can often retire far earlier than federal employees — sometimes with as little as five years of service.
In a January report, the Congressional Research Service said that as of October 2009, 275 lawmakers had retired under CSRS and were receiving an average pension of $69,012. Another 180 lawmakers who retired under FERS or partly under both programs were receiving an average pension of $40,140.
That is far higher than the average $35,000 annuity for CSRS employees and the average $12,780 annuity for FERS employees, according to the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.
Lawmakers may also take part in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program, and Federal Employees Group Life Insurance Program, same as federal employees. But lawmakers also are able to get primary care from the U.S. Capitol's Office of the Attending Physician for a $503 annual fee.
And current lawmakers can get outpatient medical and emergency dental care from military facilities in the National Capitol Region — absolutely free, the CRS report said. Lawmakers are billed for inpatient care, though their FEHBP plans may cover those costs after a deductible or co-payment is met. Their dependents are not eligible for care in military hospitals.
Michael Hager, the former acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said it's inappropriate for lawmakers to receive extra benefits that regular feds don't enjoy, especially with the nation running such high deficits. He said congressional benefits should be brought in line with standard employees' benefits.
"I see no justification for that," Hager said. "Why should nonveterans receive veterans' benefits [access to military hospitals]?"
But NARFE Legislative Director Dan Adcock doesn't think lawmakers' benefits are excessive when compared with federal employees. The higher contribution rate they pay somewhat mitigates the higher benefits they receive, he said. And offering generous benefits makes it possible for middle-class Americans to run for national office, Adcock said. If those benefits weren't available, he said, only upper-class officials would be able to serve in Congress. Reducing congressional compensation would also discourage talented people from running for office, he said, making it even tougher to get people with necessary expertise to solve the nation's problems.
"You get what you pay for," Adcock said. "If people think that members of Congress do an incompetent job in the current circumstances, they ain't seen nothing yet."
Some lawmakers have earned the enmity of federal employees by introducing bills that would cut federal retirement benefits. When a new proposal comes out, it's common to see feds grouse online about lawmakers picking on them and ignoring their own benefits.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., is so far the only lawmaker to call for cutting lawmakers' benefits. He plans to introduce a bill later this month that would do away with lawmakers' future defined benefit pensions. Coffman said Aug. 24 that his bill would not touch any pension benefits accrued before its passage — or lawmakers' Social Security and Thrift Savings Plan benefits — but going forward, no current lawmaker would add to the value of his pension, and future lawmakers would get no pension whatsoever.
Hager is all for Coffman's plan. But Adcock said NARFE opposes taking away lawmakers' benefits. He said that would become "a slippery slope" that would make it easier to do away with rank-and-file feds' pensions in the future.
There is at least one urban legend about congressional benefits that isn't true. A viral email made the rounds earlier this year that claimed lawmakers and their family members don't have to repay their student loans. That's incorrect, although congressional staffers are eligible for the same student loan repayment programs available to all federal employees.
But lawmakers' extra retirement and health benefits are real, and are on top of their $174,000 annual salary, $3,000 annual tax deduction for living expenses while in Washington, three-day work week, jets back home on the weekends and recesses that last for up to a month.
Not a bad gig, if you can get it.