Myth versus fact – addressing a persistent rumor

Published 2:05 pm Tuesday, August 30, 2005

By By Jo Bonner
Throughout my tenure in the House of Representatives, and during the 18 years prior to that in which I served on the staff of former Congressman Sonny Callahan, our office has been contacted frequently on a variety of issues impacting our district, our state, and our nation.
Whether it is a question or comment on Social Security, national defense, or veterans spending, the men and women who call, write, or e-mail our office have very valid concerns over important issues of the day and the news they have received regarding these areas of concern.
Unfortunately, not all the news they are hearing or reading on these issues is accurate. In fact, a multitude of rumors and myths have arisen on a variety of topics, which have taken on a life of their own. I was reminded of that point recently when I was contacted by several constituents who raised concerns over one topic which has been the focus of many of these rumors: the retirement plans for members of Congress. This week, I would like to provide information which I hope will clarify many of the concerns and misconceptions associated with the congressional retirement program.
Congressional retirement
I have frequently been contacted by residents of south Alabama expressing concern that members of Congress are able to retire, after only a few years service, at full salary. They are also expressing misguided concerns that congressmen and senators are not required to pay into the Social Security program. I can certainly understand the frustration of many Americans over this – but any frustrations are completely misdirected, because this information is simply not true. In fact, as a result of being circulated throughout the Internet and being included in what I am sure is by now millions of e-mail messages, this myth has taken on a life of its own.
Between 1946 and 1983, members of Congress were included in the old Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), the retirement program used by all federal workers. Everyone in the government who participated in the program during this nearly four-decade period was exempt from paying into the Social Security program, since at that time it was considered duplicative.
However, this all changed in 1983 with the institution of the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). This program mandated that all new federal employees, including members of both the House of Representatives and Senate, must participate in FERS and pay into Social Security. A large majority of the members of Congress, myself included, who were elected after 1984 are now paying into both FERS and the Social Security program.
Additionally, it is completely untrue that members of Congress, during their retirement, will receive 100 percent of their full salary. For members who fall under the pre-1983 CSRS program, those who are vested after a period of five years and have reached age 62 are eligible to receive only 12 percent of their salary, an amount that increases to 80 percent only if they serve in Congress for 32 years or longer.
For those members elected after 1984 and who participate in FERS, the retirement pension ranges from 8.5 percent of their salary for only a short tenure up to 34 percent of their salary after serving in Congress for 20 years. For each year after 20 years in which a member serves, an additional one percent of their salary is included in their pension.
So in short, what does all of this mean in hard numbers? Put simply, congressmen and senators don't retire with the expectation of receiving their full salary over the remainder of their lifetime. In fact, it is far, far less. Based on the latest available data, the average annual pension for a retired member of Congress is $54,804. This figure is based on a pension which started in 1999 and an average of 20.8 years of service (under the old CSRS program). For members like me who were elected in 1984 or after, the comparable average annual pension – using the same start year of 1999 and the same average tenure in Congress – will be $44,208.
I certainly hope the information provided here helps to clarify concerns any of you may have had regarding the issue of congressional retirement. It is, of course, difficult to combat a rumor that has gained so much momentum over the years and has been given so much life by the Internet.
However, I certainly hope each of you remember that the answers to these and many other questions are available, and my staff and I want to help.
If you ever have any questions on legislative matters or on a federal agency with which you may have a claim for benefits or other problems, please don't hesitate to let us know. My staff and I work for the people of south Alabama. Feel free to call on us whenever we can be of service.
Jo Bonner is a U.S. congressman. His column appears weekly.

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