MacIver News Service | June 19, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON – Before exiting Congress nearly a year ago, U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), claimed that his congressional colleagues should get a $2,500 monthly housing allowance to defray the hefty expense of D.C. living.
“I really do believe Congress would be much better served if there was a housing allowance for members of Congress,” Chaffetz told The Hill in an interview in his Capitol office, “Where he sleeps whenever he’s in Washington.” He acknowledged that, “in today’s climate,” no member of Congress would dare ask for a pay raise, “but you shouldn’t have to be among the wealthiest of Americans to serve properly in Congress.”
News flash: Members of congress are doing all right.
As Roll Call’s David Hawking’s notes, the cumulative net worth of senators and House members soared by one-fifth in the two years before the start of Congress’ most recent session, outperforming the average American’s improving wealth and the performance of the financial markets during that time.
“The total wealth of all current members was at least $2.43 billion when the 115th Congress began, 20 percent more than the collective riches of the previous Congress, a significant gain during a period when both the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose less than 10 percent,” Hawking wrote.
It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. As MacIver News Service reported earlier this year, the 2017 tax reform law, the first major reform to the U.S. tax code in 30 years, came with the elimination of a provision that allowed members of Congress to deduct up to $3,000 of living expenses incurred while in Washington, D.C. The write-off was just one of a suite of benefits federal lawmakers receive for “doing the people’s business.”
MacIver News Service’s story, published in March, got some of our readers wondering: Just what kind of perks are members of Congress hauling in?
Here’s a look at the sweeteners included in the congressional benefits package.
Competitive Wage and Benefits
Rank-and-file members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives boast an annual salary of $174,000. Pay rises with responsibility. The Speaker of the House makes $223,500 a year, while the majority and minority leaders earn an annual salary of $193,400.
Federal lawmakers have not received a pay raise, however, since 2009. But they also haven’t seen many cuts to their taxpayer-funded goodies.
Arguably the biggest perk is a sweet federal retirement and health benefits package, the same plans available to other federal employees. Under the Federal Employees Retirement Plan, members of Congress pay a scant 1.3 percent of the salaries. The rate rises for those who joined Congress in 2013 and after. They are vested after five years. They can tap into the benefit at 62 – at 50 if they have a total of 20 years of service.
Retirement payout is based on total years of service and the average of the lawmaker’s three highest years of salary.
Of 611 retired members earning federal pension benefits as of Oct. 1, 2016, 335 were covered under the old Civil Service Retirement Act, replaced by FERS in 1987. Those retired lawmakers received average annual pension payouts of $74,000, according to the Congressional Research Service. The remaining 276 members received an average annual pension of $41,076 under FERS.
Some very senior members can earn 80 percent of their pay, about $139,000 a year.
More so, taxpayer funds match congressional member contributions to a Thrift Savings Plan, akin to a private sector 401(k). The rate is 5 percent a year, plus a 1 percent freebie, paid whether the member contributes or not.
“While many Americans are struggling to save for retirement … elected representatives and senators in the United States Congress still receive envious pension benefits for life,” wrote Sean Roth for Investopedia earlier this year.
Members of Congress enjoy robust health care benefits. Most receive health insurance through DC Health Link, an exchange under Obamacare. Last year, the exchange offered 57 plans in the gold tier. Federal lawmakers and their staffers are required to purchase insurance under that tier, offering very generous taxpayer-funded subsidies.
U.S. representatives and senators, like a lot of kids, receive allowances. The MRA – Members’ Representational Allowance – was set up to pay for “official office expenses, including staff, mail, travel between a Member’s district or state and Washington, DC, and other goods and services” for House members, CRS notes. Unlike most kids, House annual allowances top $1 million. Federal lawmakers in 2016 saw an increase of 1 percent in their office allowances, with a range from $1.2 million to $1.38 million, according to CRS.
Most of the allowance was used to pay for personnel, $944,000 worth to employ up to 18 full-time staff members.
U.S. Senate members receive a Senators’ Official Personnel and Office Expense Account (SOPOEA), covering administrative and clerical staff, a “legislative assistance allowance,” and the office expense allowance.
SOPOEA levels in fiscal year 2016 posted a range of $3 million to $4.76 million, depending on the state, according to Congressional Research Service data.
“Senators have a high degree of flexibility to use the SOPOEA to operate their offices in a way that supports their congressional duties and responsibilities, and individual office spending may be as varied as the states from which the Senators are elected,” CRS noted.
Flying on the Taxpayer’s Tab
The congressional allowances also cover the cost of air travel from senators and representatives.
But beyond the comfortable flights to and from their districts, some members of Congress are seeing the world on the backs of taxpayers. A USA Today report last year found taxpayers in 2016 subsidized at least 557 trips that each cost north of $10,000 for a federal lawmaker or a staffer. Congressional travel cost nearly $20 million that year, “the highest figure ever recorded, based on data provided by the State Department, which arranges official foreign travel for lawmakers,” the report noted.
In 2015, a bill demanding members fly only coach was floated. It went nowhere.
In the board game Monopoly, if you land on the “Free Parking” space you can really haul in the cash.
Well, it’s always free parking for senators and House members at D.C. airports. The airports have provided 92 combined spots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport to federal lawmakers. And these aren’t the park-and-shuttle spots. This is movie star parking. It’s a $740,000 annual perk baked into the congressional goodie pie.
Last year, members lost the spaces at Reagan to construction crews. Instead, they are allowed to park – for free – in public spaces.
Forget the standard two weeks of vacation in the private sector. Last year, Congress was in session just 145 days out of the 261 days scheduled for legislative work. According to the congressional calendar, the Senate at the beginning of this year scheduled seven fewer session days than last year. House members planned for 3 1/2 weeks fewer session days. There is expected to be no work done in the House in the three weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 elections.
If they’re not working, at least federal lawmakers can work out. The perks package comes with exclusive gyms. The House facility, which provides the latest in cardio and weight lifting machines, offers a swimming pool, basketball and paddleball courts and flat-screen TVs. The Senate gym reportedly is even nicer. Membership was free until 1992, when a $400 annual fee went into effect. Lawmakers over the years have sought millions in funding to upgrade the members-only gyms.
In 2014, the Sunlight Foundation released three years worth of expense reports detailing a taxpayer-funded service that may seem quite unnecessary to the average taxpayer: The Senate has a barbershop. Senators have been getting haircuts and manicures there for years, subsidized by taxpayers. Manicures were cut in early 2013.
“(A)s federal employees, some of the stylists have been paid salaries upwards of $70,000 in recent years,” the Washington Post reported in 2014.