The House of Representatives is set to take up a $1.9 billion supplemental bill providing security spending related to the January 6 protests and riot at the Capitol and additional amounts to legislative branch agencies for coronavirus response and prevention activities.
The bill also provides a lump sum “death gratuity” payment to the heirs of two members of Congress who passed away this year while in office, Representatives Ron Wright (R-TX) and Alcee Hastings (D-FL). As NTUF wrote earlier this year, this benefit is provided by Congress to a deceased member’s heirs as a matter of tradition dating back to at least 1880.
Since 2000, Congress has paid out over $5 million in taxpayer money for death gratuity payments, which are provided as gifts and are not taxable. The money is conferred regardless of the financial position of the deceased’s families, which have included many millionaires. In fact, Members of Congress have a median net worth of over $1 million, which is more than 20 times as much as the median American.
These death gratuity payments are not only obsolete, but they are also on top of other survivor benefits, including the following elements.
Under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), survivors of federal workers who die while still employees are entitled to a monthly annuity worth up to 50 percent of an annuity computed as if the employee had retired on the date of death.
Hastings served in Congress for over 28 years, which made him eligible for an annual pension of $66,210, assuming he had maximized his benefit level, and less a 10 percent spousal annuity. This would make Hastings’ widow eligible for over $33,000 per year.
Hastings also had additional federal service for several years as a judge, but he is no longer eligible for that benefit after he became the first sitting federal judge to face a criminal conviction for , charged with soliciting a $150,000 bribe. This eventually led to impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1988 and a conviction in the Senate the next year.
The laws restricting impeached judges of their pension is stricter than that for convicted members of Congress. The Congressional Research Services clarifies, "If a judge is convicted of a felony, and is subsequently impeached and removed from office, he or she is no longer entitled to any compensation from that former office." This is stricter than the laws for convicted former members of Congress, who remain eligible for taxpayer-funded annuities even though they may be in jail, and even despite reform laws enacted in 2007 and 2012 to stop this.
Wright served in office from 2019 through February 2021, but he also had served as a congressional staffer from January 2000 through May 2011. Based on his congressional salary and historical congressional staff salary data available from Legistorm, his combined years of experience made him eligible for a congressional pension of $19,673 annually, less the spousal annuity. This is a conservative estimate given that the accrual rate could have been higher for his years as a staffer before reforms to congressional pensions kicked in after 2013. The estimate also assumes that the member maximized his pension benefit opportunities. Based on this calculation, his widow would be eligible for an annual $9,832 survivor annuity.
Basic Federal Employee Death Benefit
Surviving widows are also eligible for the basic federal employee death benefit which, under FERS, is equal to half of the member's final salary (which was $174,000 for rank-and-file members of Congress) plus a lump sum payment that is currently equal to $34,991 – for a net payment valued at $122,000 this year.
There are also additional benefits through Social Security, which provides a lump sum payment of $255 to a surviving spouse and the Social Security Survivor Benefit. This is calculated based on a percentage of the deceased’s basic Social Security benefit and depends on the age of the surviving spouse and type of eligible benefit.
Congress should put an end to the outmoded practice of granting additional death benefits to survivors of deceased Representatives and Senators, most of whom are much wealthier than the taxpayers expected to pay the tab. Representative Bill Posey (R-FL) introduced H.R. 412 which would prohibit Congress from providing the death gratuity handout, while leaving other benefits intact. Ending the death gratuity would make only a very small contribution to the spending restraint needed to put America’s fiscal house in order, but with this year’s $2.3 trillion budget deficit, taking this step is the least Congress could do.