Hill Pensions for the Convicted May End
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
With the rhetoric of reformers bent on sweeping corruption from the Capitol, the House voted unanimously yesterday to deny federal pensions to lawmakers convicted of bribery, perjury and other related felonies.
"Corrupt politicians deserve prison sentences, not taxpayer-funded pensions," said freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), chief sponsor of the bill.
But the punishment of those who betray the public trust will not be far-reaching.
The measure is similar to one approved by the Senate last week and comes in the wake of major congressional scandals last year that led to the conviction of former Republican congressmen Randy "Duke" Cunningham (Calif.) and Robert W. Ney (Ohio). The House passed the bill 431 to 0, with four members not voting.
The bills passed by the House and the Senate are not retroactive, which means that Cunningham and Ney will collect substantial pensions for the rest of their lives, courtesy of taxpayers.
And a current House member under federal investigation for corruption, Democratic Rep. William J. Jefferson (La.), still might be entitled to a pension if he is indicted and convicted for past crimes. The Senate version would not take effect until January 2009, while the House-passed version would take effect immediately upon enactment.
What's more, both the House and Senate bills would allow the Office of Personnel Management, which calculates the pensions of members of Congress, to award the pensions of convicted lawmakers to their families, in cases of demonstrated financial need.
"They're trying to claim to fix the problem without backing it up with legislation," said Peter J. Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union. "It's a shame, really. This may not be the most ethical Congress ever after all."
The House bill would withhold pensions from lawmakers convicted of any one of five categories of felonies, including bribery and perjury, but would protect those who have already been convicted. Stacey F. Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), said the House had no choice because criminalizing past behavior would have violated constitutional protections.
House leaders had also wanted to postpone the effective date of the measure to Jan. 2, 2009, to make it consistent with the language of the Senate-passed bill and reduce negotiations between the two chambers. They noted that, under the Constitution, a change in the compensation of members of Congress can only be carried out after the next general election.
But House Republicans objected to the 2009 date, saying that it was too distant, and privately told Democrats that they would not support it, a senior Democratic aide said. "We wanted this to have bipartisan support, so we changed it," the aide said.
For at least a decade, Congress has been kicking around bills to block pensions for convicted lawmakers. But the issue resonated following last year's influence-peddling scandal involving convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the midterm elections, when the Democrats grabbed corruption as a campaign theme and used it to win control of Congress.
Currently, members of Congress can be denied pensions only if they commit treason or other espionage offenses.
The bill approved yesterday was a watered-down version of legislation proposed by Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (Ill.), who wants pensions to be withheld from lawmakers convicted of a wider range of public integrity crimes. Kirk's plan lists 21 crimes, including wire fraud and tax evasion, compared with the five in the bill passed yesterday.
"The American people understand income-tax evasion -- you want to make sure a congressman who doesn't pay his taxes isn't rewarded with a taxpayer-funded pension," he said. "This falls far short."
But Kirk could not offer his bill yesterday -- the vote was taken under a suspension of the rules, which limited debate and blocked amendments. A parade of Republicans protested the way the bill was handled, objected to last-minute changes in language and said they were being locked out of meaningful participation.
The National Taxpayers Union estimates that at least 20 lawmakers convicted of felonies since 1980 are receiving federal pensions totaling about $1 million a year.
Ney, sentenced last week to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to making false statements and to conspiracy to commit fraud in connection with the Abramoff influence-peddling scandal, can start collecting a full annual pension worth about $29,000 in 2016 or take a reduced annual pension of about $19,000 starting in 2010, according to the taxpayer group. Cunningham, who was convicted of accepting bribes from defense contractors, can receive as much as $64,000 annually if his military service is counted in computing his pension, the group said.