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Speaking Frank-ly on Pensions

by Pete Sepp / /

Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank’s retirementannouncement is now more than a week old, but the speculation continues – someof it terribly misinformed – over the taxpayer-subsidized retirement package hemight qualify to receive.

Since NTU is often a go-to source in the media forinformation on Congressional pay and perks, we’ve already been asked to crunch the numbers several times. Ourbest estimate: Congressman Frank could qualify for a pension starting in 2013of as much as $139,000. Subsequent cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) couldmake that figure higher in future years.

Because he was first elected before 1984, Congressman Frankhas been eligible to participate in a special component of the Civil ServiceRetirement System (CSRS) that is more generous than the deal offered to mostother federal employees. Lawmakers first elected after that point are enrolledin the Federal Employees Retirement System, (FERS) again with a formula that’sbetter than what rank-and-file federal workers get. Assuming Congressman Frankjoined CSRS from the beginning of his service and stayed there, his 32 years inCongress would be sufficient to trigger a rule under the plan limiting thefirst year’s pension benefit to 80 percent of the lawmaker’s final salary.Again, however, the amount can grow with COLAs after 2013.

Congress’s pension arrangement is full of many wrinkles:enrollment was not mandatory for more senior Members, and it’s possible Frankmight have switched into FERS during two “open season” periods. Hence our useof terms such as “qualifies,” “as much as” and “assuming.” Are we hedging toomuch? Unfortunately, we can’t know. The federal government has not provideddata on the retirement amounts of individual lawmakers for more than twodecades, having rejected our outfit’s Freedom of Information Act requests fromback then. So, it’s up to NTU to provide calculations based on formulas for theplans and biographical information on Members of Congress.

Given the Congressional Research Service’s latest reporton the number of lawmakers already on the retirement rolls, the Congressional pensionscheme costs more than $25 million annually, only a fraction of which iscovered by the lawmakers’ own contributions from their salaries (which taxpayersprovide anyway). Congressman Frank – not to mention other retiring Members ofboth parties – will add to the cost. If we’d rather not see that bill climbeven higher in future years, maybe we should embarrass lawmakers into pickingup a different kind of bill – such as ones introduced this session to raise theCongressional retirement ageor abolish the Congressional pension and allow federal legislatorsto participate only in a 401 (K)-style arrangement instead. Now, that would beleadership by example for a change.