WASHINGTON – Unlike most American workers, who lost big money in their 401(k) retirement accounts last year, members of Congress can’t lose in their gold-plated retirement plans.

Congress’ bloated pensions are by far the single biggest perk offered lawmakers, a huge
incentive for incumbents to cling to office and spend more of your money.

Cushy doesn’t begin to describe their retirement plans. They are more like small lotteries.

As with private plans, politicians’ retirement benefits rise with length of service. But
congressional pensions provide double to triple the benefits offered by most private employers, studies show.

In fact, they are so generous that some former lawmakers’ annual pensions are twice as high as their pre-retirement congressional salary. Among the major provisions:

  • Payout is based on a special formula. Most companies base pensions on the average of an employee’s five highest-paid years, plus 1.5 percent. But lawmakers get the average of their highest three years’ pay – inflating the total by giving more weight to peak years – plus as much as 2.5 percent.

  • Congressional pension payments rise each year under a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. Virtually no companies offer pensions that match a rise in the Consumer Price Index.

  • Both lawmakers and staffers can retire with a full, guaranteed pension at age 50 after 20 years of service, whereas most American workers must wait until they are 65.

    Hold on for 20 years and you can retire with a full pension as early as age 50 and live the rest of your life in relative luxury – at taxpayers’ expense. And that does not include your tax-deferred savings plan, which taxpayers match nearly dollar-for-dollar, or Social Security benefits (like all workers, members of Congress pay into the system on the first $80,400 of their gross income).

    Many members who have recently left Congress will draw more than $1 million over their lifetimes. Some are expected to haul in more than $2 million, projects the National Taxpayers Union.

    Voters may have put some old tax-and-spend bulls out to pasture in recent years. But that doesn’t mean they stopped paying for their long and dubious service.

    Take former House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash. He’s collecting $123,804 a year, plus COLAs, for his 32 years of government service.

    Then there’s retired crook Dan Rostenkowski. After 36 years in the House, benefits for the former Ways and Means Committee chairman start at $96,462 a year, even though he was convicted of embezzling his office stamp allowance. (Only treason can strip federal lawmakers of their pension.)

    For the roughly 85 percent of Americans working in the private sector, retirement won’t be so golden.

    Fewer than four out of 10 workers even have a pension, guaranteed or not. And the average worker with a pension qualifies for about a third of his or her pay, or about $7,500 a year – and that’s fixed for life.

    Just bringing congressional members’ pensions in line with private pensions would save taxpayers some $100 million a year, Money magazine estimated not too long ago.

    Some members, responding to criticism, have made noises about reforming the pension system, such as converting to 401(k) plans, the retirement option for most Americans.

    But nothing comes of such talk. And why would it? Employees never cut their own benefits. And therein lies the problem: Congress sets its own pay and benefits.

    At least one public-interest group wants to change that.

    The Vienna, Va.-based Conservative Caucus, which urges Washington to live within the Constitution, proposes an amendment barring the U.S. Treasury from paying lawmakers a pension.

    The Constitution lets Congress set its pay, but does not specifically provide for retirement benefits.

    It wouldn’t be the first time pay procedures were amended. The 27th amendment bars a congressional pay raise from taking effect until after an election.

    Denying lawmakers their lavish taxpayer-subsidized pensions would go a long way toward discouraging them from treating election to public office as a career rather than a chance to serve their nation. It would also curb the pork-barrel spending that nourishes incumbency.

    But until the retirement system is changed, Congress will remain a velvet coffin for big-spending lifer politicians.

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