Expert's View

I’m not an apologist for Congress. After all, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) said, "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." However, not every criticism aimed at Congress is justified, despite what you read in e-mails like this one I received:

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For too long we have been too complacent about the workings of Congress. Many citizens had no idea that members of Congress could retire with the same pay after only one term, that they didn’t pay into Social Security, that they specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment) while ordinary citizens must live under those laws. The latest is to exempt themselves from the Healthcare Reform that is being considered… in all of its forms.

If those assertions were true, I’d be heating tar and plucking chickens to get their feathers. However, not a word of it is. Take the assertion that members of Congress don’t pay into Social Security. Hog wash! Since January 1, 1984, every member has had to pay Social Security taxes, no matter when they first entered Congress. Further, they pay the same amount as everyone else: 6.2 percent of their Social Security taxable wage base.

Further, when coverage by Social Security became mandatory, those members who were covered by CSRS had the option of electing either full coverage under both CSRS and Social Security or converting to CSRS Offset. If they chose CSRS Offset, they were treated like any other CSRS Offset employee. The amount of their CSRS retirement contributions was offset by the amount of their Social Security taxes. And just like any other CSRS Offset employee who retires before age 62, at age 62 their CSRS annuities will be reduced by the amount of Social Security benefit they earned while covered by CSRS Offset. If they retire after reaching age 62, the reduction occurs on the day they retire.

In 1987, when FERS went on line, members were automatically covered by FERS unless they declined that coverage. If they did, they’d still be covered by Social Security. Those members who had at least five years of coverage under CSRS had the opportunity to transfer to FERS.

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Now let’s examine the assertion that members of Congress can retire at the same pay level after serving only one term in Congress. Absolute nonsense! Just like you, their eligibility to retire depends on their age and service. And, just like you, their annuity is computed using their highest three consecutive years of average salary and their years of creditable service. Still, there are some differences. Like special category federal employees who generally have shorter careers (such as law enforcement officers, firefighters and air traffic controllers), their annuities are computed using a more generous formula. And the amount they contribute for that enhanced benefit is even greater than it is for law enforcement officers, firefighters and air traffic controllers.

And how about the assertion that Congress "specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment) while ordinary citizens must live under those laws." Twaddle! Under Public Law 104-1, members of Congress are held to the same standards that apply in any other workplace, including discrimination and sexual harassment.

Perhaps most amusingly of all, they aren’t exempted from the health care bill. Not only will members of Congress and their personal staffs lose their current right to be covered by the Federal Employees Health Benefits program but they’ll only have access to plans created by the law or offered through exchanges.

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So what message can you carry away from this? Don’t believe everything you read. Follow the old newspaperman’s rule, "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."