Dispelling the myth of an above-the-law Congress


Misperceptions abound about the pay and benefits that members of Congress enjoy. One example is this misleading e-mail that has been making the rounds: “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 health care reform.”

No one doubts that there are problems with Congress, but the ones cited in the e-mail are not among them. The claims are not true. Let me explain.

First, since Jan. 1, 1984, every member of Congress has had to pay Social Security taxes, regardless of when they first entered Congress. And they pay the same amount as everyone else, including those of you who are covered by the Civil Service Retirement System Offset or the Federal Employees Retirement System: 6.2 percent of their Social Security-taxable wage base.

Second, when all members of Congress were required to be covered by Social Security, those already covered by CSRS had the option of electing full coverage under both CSRS and Social Security or CSRS Offset. Those who chose CSRS Offset had the amount of their CSRS retirement contributions offset by the amount of their Social Security taxes. If they retire before age 62, at age 62 their CSRS annuities are 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.

When FERS came on line in 1987, members were automatically covered by FERS unless they declined that coverage. Those who were already covered by CSRS were offered the option of staying with that retirement system or transferring to FERS. Any member who had at least five years of CSRS coverage before entering Congress could elect to be covered by CSRS Offset. And those who had never elected to be covered by CSRS were free to reject coverage under FERS, too. If they did that, they were covered exclusively by Social Security.

Third, Congress members can’t retire at the same pay level after serving only one term. Just like federal employees, their eligibility for an annuity depends on their years of service and their age. And their annuity is calculated using their highest three years of average salary and the number of years they served. Similar to the formula used for law enforcement officers, their annuities are calculated using a more generous formula; but it’s one for which they make retirement contributions that are even greater than for those special category employees.

As for the assertion that Congress exempts itself from many laws, it is false. Public Law 104-1, the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, holds members of Congress to the same standards that apply in other workplaces, notably prohibitions against discrimination and sexual harassment.

Finally, members aren’t exempted from the new health care law. In fact, they and their staffs no longer will be eligible for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and will have access only to plans created by the law or offered through exchanges, beginning in 2014.

If the e-mail quoted above comes your way, you’ll know how to deal with it: Hit the delete button.


About Author

Reg Jones was head of retirement and insurance policy at the Office of Personnel Management. Email your retirement-related questions to fedexperts@federaltimes.com.

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