Politics

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

WASHINGTON — After retiring from a 36-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, Norm Dicks has no doubt that he's worth every penny of his new pension: It will allow the Washington state Democrat to cash a monthly check from the U.S. government for $7,365.82.

click image to enlarge

The U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The Associated Press

That's the net pay on his gross annual pension of $107,268, or $8,939 per month.

"I think I did a good job for the people in the state of Washington, you know. I think that this is fair, I really do," Dicks, 72, said in an interview.

Dicks, who's now working as a consultant with defense companies, is among a handful of departing members of Congress who are eligible for six-figure pensions in the first year of retirement. If he lives long enough, his pension could exceed his congressional salary of $174,000 in 2012, with members eligible for annual cost-of-living increases.

Altogether, about 75 new retirees will add to the estimated $28 million in yearly pension costs for Congress.

Critics say the pension system is far too generous and that members of Congress should put their retirement money on the table as they look for ways to cut federal spending.

Florida Republican Rep. Rich Nugent, a retired sheriff elected in 2010, said Congress should at least allow members to opt out of the pension system. Some members who have been around awhile declined to participate, including Republican Reps. Howard Coble of North Carolina and the just-retired Ron Paul of Texas.

But since September 2003, all members of Congress have been required to participate in the pension plan.

"I guess that's kind of the way you cover your butts, I'm not sure," Nugent said in an interview.

Last month, he reintroduced a bill called the Congress Is Not a Career Act that would permit lawmakers to choose not to participate in the pension system or the federal Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k)-style plan that supplements the pension and allows members to save their own retirement money, receiving a match of up to 5 percent from federal taxpayers.

"Personally, I don't believe that we should be up there for 30 or 40 years. It's just my personal belief that it's an honor to serve and I really shouldn't be enriching myself long after my service is over," Nugent said, adding that his bill hasn't been popular – he has yet to line up a single co-sponsor. "I've had some folks that are senior to me that are not necessarily very happy with that."

As of October 2011, 495 retired members of Congress were drawing pensions under two different plans, the Congressional Research Service said in a report to Congress last November.

Under the older plan, which covered members elected before 1984, 280 were receiving average annual pensions of $70,620. The remaining 215 members were getting smaller pensions under the new plan, averaging $39,576 in 2011, the report said.

According to estimates from the National Taxpayers Union, Dicks and least five others who retired last month are eligible for maximum pensions of $125,000 after serving at least 32 years in Congress: six-term Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Democratic Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan and three House members from California – Democrat Pete Stark and Republicans Jerry Lewis and David Dreier.

"That's a pretty rich pension. I will tell you that most people don't receive that kind of pension," Nugent said.

Dicks, the longest-serving House member in Washington state history, who ranked 10th in seniority among the 435 House members, said he had decided to lower his pension by opting for a survivors benefit that will provide payments to his wife, too. And he said he had contributed up to 7.5 percent of his income each year to save for his retirement.

(Continued on page 2)

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