Lawmakers pitch cuts, reforms to congressional pensions

Griffin is pushing legislation that would eliminate congressional pensions for future members, who would have to rely solely on the Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k) equivalent that Congress already receives.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) goes one step further, advocating the elimination of pensions for current members as well. His office says that move could save more than $13 million per year for the current Congress alone.

Several lawmakers put forward alternatives Wednesday to the slash-and-burn proposals of Coffman and Griffin.  

Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) proposed legislation that would lengthen the time of service required for a member to be eligible for a pension. 

“It extends the time required from five years to 12 years before a member is vested in an annuity under the Federal Employee Retirement System,” he testified. “It is the equivalent of two terms in the Senate or six terms in the House or any combination of the two.” 

But, like Griffin’s proposal, it would also only affect future members, not those who have already been elected.

Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) suggested keeping lawmakers' benefits more in line with Social Security.

His Congressional Retirement Age Act would tie lawmakers’ pension eligibility to the Social Security retirement age of 65. Members are currently eligible to receive pension benefits at age 62 after five years of service, or as early as age 50 after 25 years of service.

Schilling estimates the measure would save $10 million to $15 million over 10 years, and noted that it has already received bipartisan support, with 26 co-sponsors in the House, including subcommittee members Reps. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.) and Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzOvernight Finance: Trump pitches massive tax cuts | Freedom Caucus endorses plan | Dems slam framework | House GOP to move B border wall bill | Officials under fire for private jet use GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status Republicans predict Senate ObamaCare repeal would pass House MORE (R-Utah).

Instead of wholesale change to the pension system, Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) advocated giving members a choice. 

His Congress is Not a Career Act proposes to allow members of the House elected after September 2003 to be able to opt out of receiving pension benefits — something members are currently not able to do.

“I was shocked when the [congressional] benefits representative told me that I was legally required to accept a congressional pension, as long as I was here for at least five years,” he testified. “Similarly, I couldn’t contribute to a [Thrift Savings Plan] without a federal match. Even more, if I didn’t put a single penny into the TSP, the government would still contribute a match of one percent of my salary, without any cost to me.”

The legislation from the former Hernando County sheriff is “about allowing those of us who don’t view this institution as a career, who don’t think that we should get a pension for serving our country, who don’t think we should be enriching ourselves while sitting in the peoples’ House, the ability to opt out,” he added.

Rep. Robert Dold (R-Ill.) proposed a pension alternative that will likely impact the smallest number of members. 

He cited a recent National Taxpayers Union study that estimated “federal lawmakers convicted of various crimes are currently drawing a combined pension benefit of more than $800,000 per year.”

According to Dold, that does not include convicted lawmakers who are so far ineligible for receiving their pension, or whose public corruption cases are still pending in the courts. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, also only holds that members forfeit their pension if the crimes for which they were convicted occurred while they served in Congress. 

Last June, Dold and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) proposed the Congressional Integrity and Pension Forfeiture Act, prohibiting a former member of Congress from receiving a congressional pension if they are convicted of an offense that occurred while subsequently serving in any publicly elected office.

The bill also adds 20 additional covered public corruption crimes for which, if convicted, a member would forfeit his pension benefits. 

Though cost savings would not be as significant as other bills proposed before the subcommittee, Dold said public trust is at stake. 

“This legislation will help in our ongoing efforts to restore public trust in this institution and those who serve in it,” he testified.

As Congress faces its lowest approval ratings in memory, and the few Americans who still receive pension benefits have seen them plummet during the economic downturn, it’s left to members to reconcile their benefits against their own constituents’.

“I just think this is a sore spot with a lot of Americans, that members of Congress have a benefit that’s not available to most,” Coffman said in November.