In the past week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a cost estimate for the No CORRUPTION Act, a bipartisan reform bill introduced by Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Rick Scott (R-FL) that would close a loophole that lets convicted members of Congress continue to collect generous pensions.
In CBO's estimation, the bill would save less than $500,000 over the next decade; minimal savings relative to the $80 trillion the government is expected to spend through 2023, but protecting taxpayers from providing payouts to former politicians in prison is priceless.
Members of Congress with at least five years of service become eligible for a congressional pension. The amount of the annual annuity is based on when they were first elected, how long they served, and the average of the three highest years of salary. CBO reports that the average annuity under the Federal Employees Retirement System is $45,000. The handful of Representatives and Senators originally elected to Congress prior to 1984 would be eligible for the more generous Civil Service Retirement System.
Under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA), members of Congress who are convicted of certain crimes are supposed to lose eligibility for their congressional pension. A follow up law, the Stop Trading on Insider Knowledge (STOCK) Act of 2012, added to the list of crimes that would lead to the loss of this benefit.
Unfortunately, as NTUF revealed in a review of recent indictments, the pension is not stripped until all opportunities to appeal the conviction have expired, and this process can drag on for years and years.
The No CORRUPTION Act would cut off the payments upon conviction. The bill also includes an important provision ensuring that the member would become eligible for the full amount owed if the conviction is successfully appealed.
Two Members of Congress have been in the news recently for issues related to HLOGA and the STOCK Act. Representative George Santos (R-NY) was recently indicted for crimes that were covered by those laws. He pled not guilty to the charges, but he is not eligible for a pension since he is serving his first term in Congress.
There are also reports that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is under investigation by the Department of Justice into whether he improperly took gifts and money from a New Jersey company. It is unknown at this time whether indictments will be filed against the Senator or whether any possible indictments would include provisions that would lead to pension forfeiture (the Congressional Research Service lists the violations in a 2013 report). Before moving to the Senate in 2006, Menendez was originally elected to the House in 1993. NTUF estimates that he is currently eligible for a pension of up to $70,000 per year (plus annual cost-of-living adjustments), assuming that he took steps to maximize the amount of this benefit.
Lawmakers should work to close the loophole to ensure that taxpayers aren't on the hook for paying out pensions to corrupt politicians. The No CORRUPTION Act would protect taxpayers while also protecting the rights of former members who successfully overturn their convictions.