February 24, 2013

Critics call pension plan for Congress too generous

Some retired lawmakers defend the system, but others think members should reduce their benefits as part of a deficit-reduction package.

By ROB HOTAKAINEN / McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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The U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The Associated Press

"It isn't like you haven't made a personal contribution," said Dicks, who worked eight years as a Senate staffer before joining the House in 1977.

On average, congressional pensions are two to three times as generous as those offered to workers in the private sector with similar salaries, according to Pete Sepp, the executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a 362,000-member group that has long lobbied for tightening up the pension system.

But he said those comparisons had become increasingly difficult to make because so many private employers have scrapped their defined-benefit plans, opting for 401(k) plans that rely mainly on employee contributions.

Specific pension amounts vary depending on years of service in Congress, whether members had other jobs in the federal government, when they enrolled and whether they're married.

Estimates from the taxpayers union show the wide range of pensions that a handful of recent retirees have qualified for: $64,000 per year for Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman; $60,000 for Democratic Rep. Jerry Costello of Illinois; nearly $52,000 for Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; nearly $48,000 for Republican Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina; $37,000 for Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada; $35,000 for Washington Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, who became the state's governor last month; $33,500 for Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of California; $26,600 for Democratic Rep. Brad Miller of North Carolina; $21,000 for Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack; $16,000 for Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina; and nothing for Florida Republican Rep. Allen West, who served only two years, short of the five-year minimum required to get a congressional pension.

Eligible lawmakers generally may start receiving payments at age 62, or even younger if they served for a long period.

Sepp, who calculated the estimates, has been working on the issue for years, testifying before Congress last year and trying to shed light on a system that keeps private any specific information on how much lawmakers receive. In the past, the federal government released pension information under the Freedom of Information Act, but he said that changed in the late 1980s as a result of court cases involving privacy issues.

Sepp said members of Congress had designed a retirement system that provided them with pensions that were even more lucrative than those that other federal workers received.

Last year, he told a congressional subcommittee that Congress had succeeded in creating what many consider "one of the most generous pension programs ever created."

And he said members of Congress now had an opportunity to lead by example by making their benefits part of a deficit-reduction package this year.

"It's not the easiest financial hit for lawmakers to take, but neither would it be a catastrophe," Sepp said in an interview. "At the very least, they could harmonize their benefit formula with that of the rest of the federal government."

On average, Sepp said, Congress' pension system costs $25 million to $30 million per year, depending on the ages of retirees and their lengths of service.

With Congress under pressure to constrain spending, Dicks said he wouldn't be surprised if members made changes to the pension system, such as capping cost-of-living increases.

While the federal government doesn't release pension information, Dicks said he had no problem disclosing his, since it involves taxpayers' money.

"This is public," he said. "And as I said, I'm proud of my service."

Dicks said he was expecting his first pension check to arrive no later than mid-March. 

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