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Information on Congressional Retirement Benefits
Members of Congress began paying into Social Security in 1983, as part of a government-wide pension overhaul. This is a requirement, and Members may not opt out of it. They then have the option of participating in one of two pension plans, depending upon when they were elected (most of them do). If elected before 1984, they participate in the Civil Service Retirement System; if elected 1984 and after, they participate in the Federal Employee Retirement System. These two plans are also offered to rank and file federal employees, EXCEPT that the Congressional plan's benefit is calculated on a more generous formula than that offered to most other government workers. The "accrual rate" is much higher, and lawmakers tend to be able to retire earlier with benefits than other federal workers (as early as age 50).
Also, Members of Congress may participate in the government-wide Thrift Savings Plan, which works like a federally-managed 401 (k) salary reduction plan. FERS participants are entitled to a government match of up to five percent of salary; CSRS participants may set aside part of their own salary, but they do not receive the match.
In both cases, Members of Congress do contribute to their pension plans, although the rates are somewhat complicated by the fact that since 1983, lawmakers have been required to pay into Social Security. Members elected before 1984 must pay 8 percent of their salaries into the pension plan, but may elect a "Social Security offset" provision that allows them to split the pay-in (6.2 percent for Social Security and 1.8 percent for the pension.) The result is that upon retirement, Members receive a pension that is reduced by the amount of Social Security that is attributable to Congressional service. Members elected in 1984 and thereafter pay 1.3 percent towards the pension and 6.2 percent to Social Security. This only compensates for about 1/5 of the typical lifetime benefit. We cover the rest as taxpayers.
With service of 20-25 years, a Member of Congress could retire with up to 80 percent of his or her final salary replaced. Of course, the only cap on how fast their benefits rise is the rate of increase in CPI. For this reason, Congressional pensions can and frequently do exceed a Member's final salary, but only after a few years in retirement, when COLAs begin to kick in. For example, a Member of Congress who could collect $5 million or more, if he or she retires in his/her fifties, lives until his/her eighties, and elects to leave a part of the pension benefit to a spouse, who then live 10 or more years longer. This could include George Mitchell, especially after his post-Congressional government service. With Cost of Living Adjustments, total payments over a lifetime can reach these levels (though the more typical payout is likely to be between $1 million and $2 million).
In the final analysis, Congressional pension benefits are 2-3 times more generous than what a similarly-salaried executive could expect to receive upon retiring from the private sector.
Additional information concerning pay and perks is available in NTUF Policy Paper 131.