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What Kind of Benefits Does Congress Really Get?

They're far less lavish than critics claim

En español | During the recession, as Americans saw their 401(k)s sink and their Social Security benefits questioned, many were quick to comment: "Why should members of Congress care? They get pensions for life."

congressional benefits

— David Allan Brandt/Getty Images

And when the health care debate heated up, some felt the discussion might have been different if members of Congress didn't have such a cushy deal for their own medical coverage.

Tales of extravagant congressional pensions abound on websites and in e-mail chains. Typical is this one, posted to CNN's AMFix blog in March: "Many citizens had no idea that Congress members could retire with the same pay after only one term, that they didn't pay into Social Security."

Not exactly true. Congressional retirement and health care benefits are indeed generous by the standards of many workers, but far less lavish than critics claim.

For the most part, benefits for Congress are similar to those of any federal employee, although there are differences.

How their retirement plan works

Nearly all Congress members are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System. The FERS retirement plan has three parts:

  • Social Security. Members of Congress have Social Security taxes withheld from their pay like other workers, and are eligible for retirement benefits beginning at age 62.

    Before 1984, members of Congress were covered by the old Civil Service Retirement System and were not required to pay into Social Security — nor could they get a Social Security benefit. But at present, all members of Congress must pay into Social Security, including nearly 50 currently serving members who were first elected before 1984.

  • A pension benefit. People on the federal payroll, including members of Congress, receive a traditional "defined benefit" pension, something that is available to only a small percentage of private-sector workers.

    According to the Congressional Research Service, in October 2006 the average annual pension for a retired member of Congress who served under FERS was $35,952, compared with the current $174,000 salary for active members.

    (Members of Congress won't be affected by President Obama's proposal for a pay freeze for federal employees — Congress sets its own pay scales separately, and in 2009 and 2010 voted to forgo its usually automatic annual pay increases.)

    A member who leaves office before serving five years because of an election defeat or resignation is not eligible for a pension. And any member who is convicted of a crime such as bribery, fraud, racketeering or perjury for acts committed after September 2007 is ineligible.

    But, on grounds that working in Congress means uncertain job security, elected members and their staffs receive a larger retirement benefit from FERS for each year of service than other federal employees. They also become eligible for a retirement annuity at a younger age and with fewer years of service.

    In return, they contribute a higher percentage of their pay to participate in FERS — 1.3 percent instead of 0.8 percent for most workers. As in the private sector, the bulk of the retirement benefit's cost is picked up by the employer, in this case, the U.S. government.

    Members of Congress can begin drawing their full pension at age 62 if they have completed five years of service, at age 50 with 20 years' service, or at any age with 25 years' service. They can collect a reduced pension with 10 years of service at ages 55 to 57, depending on their birth year.

  • The Thrift Savings Plan. This is a "defined contribution" plan available to all federal employees and similar to the 401(k) plans common in the private sector. There's a difference: Whether or not the employee chooses to save anything, the government contributes 1 percent of base pay to the savings plan.

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