House Republicans target congressional retirement benefits

Joe Davidson
Columnist January 25, 2012

It’s not unusual for House Republicans to call for limits on federal retirement benefits, but this time the targeted benefits are their own.

During a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.) said he is introducing legislation that would help “ensure that members of Congress are treated no better than their fellow citizens in the federal workforce.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The catch: Benefits would fall for all federal workers.

Six other Republican congressmen pushed separate bills, all of which would cut benefits for members of Congress or allow them to opt out of those benefits.

Noble sentiments, perhaps. But that’s not the whole story.

House Republicans also support a measure, already approved by their chamber, that would help cover the cost of extending the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance by having federal employees pay more for what in some cases would be reduced retirement benefits. The measure also would add 12 months to the present two-year freeze on basic federal pay.

A Democrat on the federal workforce subcommittee said the measures aimed at congressional pensions are a diversion to ease the way for cuts affecting the workforce in general.

“It’s a smoke screen to get at federal employees yet again,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, who represents thousands of those workers in his suburban Northern Virginia district. “. . . This is a Trojan horse aimed at trying to get at the current benefit structure of federal employees.”

The method used  to calculate retirement benefits has a higher multiplier for members of Congress, in most cases, than the multiplier for regular federal employees. Ross’s legislation would equalize the formula in a way that would result in lower retirement payments for everybody.

It’s clear “the taxpayer has had enough of ‘Do what I say, not what I do’ from Washington,’ ” said Ross, the subcommittee chairman. “Being a member of Congress is not a career. It’s an honor bestowed upon a few by the great people of this nation.”
  The legislation advocated by the six other Republican congressmen could limit congressional pensions in different ways:

●Rep. Richard B. Nugent (Fla.) said the “Congress is Not a Career Act” would allow members to decline benefits offered through the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) and the Thrift Savings Plan.

● Rep. Robert J. Dold (Ill.) would deny congressional pension benefits to former members “convicted of a covered offense that occurred while subsequently serving in any publicly elected office,” including at the state and local levels.

● Rep. Bobby Schilling (Ill.) said his bill ties members’ pension eligibility to the Social Security retirement age. He said they now can receive those benefits at age 50 with 25 years of service.

● Rep. Howard Coble (N.C.) said members should be required to have 12 years of service, instead of the current five years, before they are vested under FERS.

● Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.) told the panel that his bill “would terminate the defined-benefit pension plan available to members of Congress.”

● Rep. Tim Griffin (Ark.) said his “End Pensions in Congress Act” would “end the pension plan for members of the House and Senate who have served for five or more years and do not opt in to continue their pension benefits within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.”

Connolly is not impressed by his colleagues’ attempts to limit congressional pensions.

“The self-loathing just has to stop,” he said.

He has no objection to an examination of congressional benefits, he said, but the real Republican agenda is to use the bills as “a portal” to advance legislation lowering retirement benefits for the general federal workforce.

Legislation intended to do that was discussed at the hearing, although it was approved by the full House last month. “It is clear that the taxpayer cannot afford the current federal pension cost structure, long term,” Ross said.

But forcing federal employees, whose pay freeze is worth $60 billion over 10 years, to sacrifice more is simply not right, said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), the top Democrat on the subcommittee. The hearing is “really an attack on federal workers,” he said during the discussion.

In a prepared statement, he said: “We should be reminded that the vast majority of federal workers are middle-income earners and that subjecting them to an additional year of pay freezes on top of mandating that they shift more of their take-home pay without receiving any additional benefits is simply unfair and untenable, especially given the critical workload, programs and services that our federal employees carry out on a daily basis.”

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Joe Davidson’s column archive is at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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