Published on October 5th, 2013 | by Jim Gray1
What Does Congress Get Paid? #TFL035 The Functional Libertarian
TFL35 ACTUAL CONGRESSIONAL BENEFITS
There is a lot of misinformation and mystery about the compensation that the members of the United States Congress receive, and this is perpetuated by frequent emails that spread many things that are untrue. So I did some research at www.About.com, which provides information about the US Government, and also placed several calls to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives (202 225-7000) to compile and report to you the accurate information. Here, at least in theory, is what I discovered.
The present salary of the members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives is $174,000 per year, except for the Speaker of the House, who receives $223,500, and the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate, who each receive $193,400. But those amounts are also subject to a Cost of Living Adjustment increase each year, unless Congress votes to forego that benefit for that year.
Prior to 1984, neither the members nor any other federal employees were required to pay into or eligible to receive benefits from the Social Security system. But that changed with the passage of the Federal Employees’ Retirement System, so that all federal employees first hired after January 1, 1984, and all members regardless of when they began service, are now required to pay 6.2 percent of their salary into the Social Security system. In addition, the members are now also required to contribute 1.3 percent of their salary into their own federal pension account.
Like for all federal employees, the members’ pensions vest after five years of service, and the maximum pension is capped at 80 percent of the average of their highest three years of salary. Prior federal civilian and military service is also tacked on to the amount of time that is served in Congress for these computation purposes. The earliest that any member can receive pension benefits is age 50, but only after 20 years of service, and the latest age to which benefits can be delayed is age 62. But eligibility for the beginning of a pension can begin at any age after retirement for those members with 25 years of service.
In 2006, there were 290 former members receiving pension payments who were covered by the program before the 1984 changes were made, and their average compensation was $60,972 per year. As best I could determine, the formula for those members with 22 years of service entitled them to receive 55 percent of the average of their top three years of salary. The average for the 123 former members who joined the program after the 1984 changes went into effect was $35,952 per year, and, as best as I could determine, that same 22 years of service for members entitled them to 36 percent of that same average.
Members may also receive outside income up to a maximum of $26,550 per year, but there are no limits for income from investments. However, members are not allowed to receive any honoraria whatsoever for any speaking appearances. They may also make contributions to a 401K program, but there is no matching contribution by the government.
Contrary to many rumors, members are not excluded from the provisions of the (so-called) Affordable Care Act, so they will have the same issues with its provisions that the rest of us have. And contrary to other rumors, members do not receive a per diem, housing allowance, vacation pay, or, unlike the California state legislators, a car allowance.
But in addition, each member of Congress also receives three different types of allotments for expenses. The first is for personal expenses, which must be accounted for each quarter. The same amount is received by each member. But I was not able to discover how much that is, as it was not contained on any website I found, and no one in the Office of the Clerk seemed to know. The second is for sending mail to their constituents. And the third is for office expenses, which consist of the leasing of an office in their district, the salaries for their staff in both their Washington and local offices, and for travel to and from their district to Washington. As to staffing, each member is restricted to no more than 18 full-time and 4 part-time assistants, and the maximum authorized salary for any staff member is $168,411. None of these expenses may be used for election campaigns, and, similarly, no campaign donations may be used to augment the expense allotments.
Each member is also entitled to travel on “fact-finding” trips abroad. But those expenses must be approved by the chair of the committee for which the travel is relevant, and at least one member of each political party must be included in the trip.
Looking back to the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin considered proposing that no elected government officials receive any salary at all for their service, but he could not gain sufficient support for that proposal so it was dropped. Nevertheless, almost none of the Founding Fathers contemplated that government service would become a profession. Instead it was anticipated that people would perform their service in office for a fairly short time, and then return to private life.
Unfortunately, in many ways since that time both federal and state employees have become a privileged class. For example, very few people today in the private sector receive pensions. Instead they provide for their own retirement through their own 401K programs, either with or without help from their employers. I believe the Founding Fathers would have favored the same system today for government workers, and so do I.
Some people feel that it is hypocritical for me, as a retired judge who receives a pension from the State of California, to argue against public pensions. However, these programs were initiated years ago to compensate for the fact that the average salaries for government employees were then appreciably below their counterparts in the private sector. So retirement pensions were used as an incentive to attract competent and dedicated workers. But that situation has changed, in that now most government employees receive salaries that are fully competitive with those in the private sector.
Furthermore, many of our governments in our country are now literally bankrupt, because they have more future financial obligations for these pensions than they will have income. Accordingly, it is time for the members of Congress to lead the way back to financial solvency and responsibility and vote to terminate all further retirement pensions for new federal employees, including themselves. The financial security of our children, grandchildren and country depend upon that result.
James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court.
For his complete TFL (The Functional Libertarian) series, click on his picture below:
He was the 2012 Libertarian candidate for Vice President, along with Governor Gary Johnson as the candidate for President.
Judge Gray can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net.