Five myths about perks of Congress
Congress thought about voting to raise its pay this week, which is about as popular as voting for mandatory root canals for all Americans. The motion was tabled. Political courage comes in many forms, but voting for a pay raise for lawmakers requires a very safe seat or a lust for danger. If we do not want a Congress full of millionaires immune to the economic pressures of working families, we should remove the economic barriers that prevent many good decent people from running for public office.
“What about all those perks?” you ask. “What about the members of Congress who pay no Social Security taxes, receive lavish pensions for life, and receive free health care instead of ObamaCare?” I have heard a lot about this since leaving Congress two years ago. It is all the stuff of internet hoaxes and angry chatter at cocktail parties, but it is persistent.
Just last week, I was asked about this issue after I spoke at a small alumni breakfast at Cornell University, where I lead the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Cornell University graduates are some of the smartest people on earth. Still, one class of 1969 alumnus weighed in, “You guys would be more popular if you did not give yourself all those perks.”
So I set the record straight, right there in the lobby of the Statler Hotel on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, disassembling one myth after the other. When I finished, he said, “If I were you, I would get the word out. People should know the facts.” This was a point well taken. Here are my top five myths and facts about perks for members of Congress.
The first myth is that members of Congress exempted themselves from ObamaCare. The fact is that members of Congress are subject to ObamaCare. Section 1312 of the law requires members of Congress and staff to use an ObamaCare plan. The only way out is the same for every American, which is receiving health care through a spouse or parent, or purchasing a health plan without a federal contribution to premiums.
The second myth is that members of Congress receive a pension equal to their salary after a year of service. The fact is that members of Congress may draw a pension after five years of service and reaching the age of 62, and the amount is determined by a formula based on the average of the three consecutive years in which their pay was highest and the number of years they served. During their service, members have to contribute a portion of their salary to the pension plan. In my case, after 16 years of service, my pension would work out to be a little above the $40,000 level. This is not bad, but it is nowhere near the full salary that I had received.
The third myth is that members of Congress do not pay into Social Security. The fact is that lawmakers certainly do. The Social Security amendments that became law in 1983 require members of Congress to pay into Social Security, just like most federal government employees.
The fourth myth is that members of Congress frequently vote to increase their own pay. The fact is that the annual salary of a rank and file member of Congress is $174,000 and has not increased since 2009. According to the Congressional Research Service, this salary has decreased 15 percent adjusted for inflation since the last pay adjustment in 2009. The last time that Congress unilaterally changed its salary was as part of legislation in 1989 that included a cost of living adjustment and, almost, this week.
The fifth myth is that members of Congress get free housing. They wish. The fact is that members of Congress do not get free housing. They pay rent or mortgages for accommodations in Washington, just like everyone else. Some do sleep on their couches in their offices, but that is weird.
This is not to say that serving in Congress is thankless. It is a privilege and an honor to represent our communities in the halls of the United States Capitol. But the fact is that all those lavish perks you read about on the internet are not always true. We must debate whether lawmakers should receive salary adjustments or how they manage their budgets. But the debate must be based on something more than “I read it on the internet.”
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.