To solve the debt crisis, Americans—who are already suffering in these tough economic times—will have to make even more sacrifices, Rep. Mike Coffman told his House colleagues last year. So, leaning on his military service, the 58-year-old Colorado Republican argued that members of Congress should take the first step and abolish their congressional pensions. “If there’s one thing I learned in both the United States Army and the Marine Corps about leadership, it was leading by example,” Coffman lectured them, pointing to his chest at a committee hearing. “Never ask anyone to do anything that you yourself would not be willing to do.”
What Coffman left unsaid that day in a speech about his bill’s “symbolic” importance was that he was collecting a $55,547 state-government pension in addition to his congressional paycheck. Having spent two decades as an elected official in Colorado, he has received retirement benefits since 2009, the year he arrived in Congress.
“We did not want to double-dip on the taxpayers in a time of fiscal challenge.”—Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., who declines his pension
Coffman is not alone. About 90 members from both chambers collected a government pension atop their taxpayer-financed $174,000 salary in 2012, National Journal found in an examination of recent financial records. Including a dozen newly elected freshmen who reported government pensions last year, the number now stands above 100. That’s nearly one-fifth of Congress. One lawmaker, freshman Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, received $253,323 from her government pension last year—a sum that, combined with her congressional salary, will make her better paid than President Obama this year.
Congressional pensioners span the ideological spectrum, from tea-party conservatives who rail against government waste to unabashed liberals. They are among the richest members (Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., with a net worth of at least $42.8 million in 2011) and the poorest (Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who reported between $15,000 and $50,000 in the bank and at least $600,000 in mortgage and loan debts). Overall, Democrats draw government pensions more often than Republicans—by a ratio of 2-to-1. Some lawmakers draw on multiple public retirement packages, including the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, who collected $65,000 from three different pensions in 2012.
All told, current members of Congress pocketed more than $3.6 million in public retirement benefits in 2012, the investigation found. The actual figure is almost certainly even higher because disclosure is uneven. Some lawmakers reported retirement earnings in ranges; others listed pensions but no amounts at all. This analysis, which included historical data from the Center for Responsive Politics, also does not include most military retirements, because lawmakers are not required to report them (although those who voluntarily did so were included). Members who served last year but are gone now were not included; freshmen who reported collecting pensions as candidates in 2012, such as Beatty, were included.
The practice of piling a pension atop a paycheck is legal, if unsavory to many. Taxpayer groups and some conservatives have condemned the practice as “double-dipping”; they say elected officials shouldn’t simultaneously draw a public pension while cashing a government paycheck, because taxpayers ultimately foot at least part of the bill for both. “You’re paying them twice,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.Fixed pensions are a fading memory for most American workers, who are still smarting from losses to their 401(k)s during the credit crisis—even if those accounts have since recovered. The fact that federal lawmakers can draw large retirement payments atop generous taxpayer-funded salaries only helps fuel the widespread sense that the ruling class in Washington puts its own interests first.
Many states and municipalities forbid the practice of retiring and then taking a full-time job within the same governmental system. But those rules don’t apply to members of Congress when they are drawing a federal paycheck and, typically, a state or local pension. “It’s a hard nut to crack as far as addressing it, because it’s different jurisdictions,” Ellis says. And federal lawmakers who have served before on the state level can garner gold-plated retirement benefits, because state legislators often write their own generous rules to allow earlier retirement or fatter pensions.
Take Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, 57, who has been collecting her Louisiana pension since late 1997, the year she joined the Senate. She was only 41. (Louisiana voters had passed a constitutional amendment to ban pensions for new state legislators in 1996, the year before. But Landrieu, who had spent eight years as a legislator, could withdraw hers because she was grandfathered in.) The average Louisiana state worker hired in recent years, by contrast, can’t retire with a full pension until age 60. Landrieu lists her annual pension payout as between $15,000 and $50,000. “They’re two different levels of government, and it’s completely permissible,” says Landrieu, who served two terms as state treasurer after her time as a state legislator. “I have every intention of maintaining it and continuing.”
Like Landrieu, most lawmakers collecting public pensions say they deserve the payout because they put in the time and contributed to their retirement from their own paychecks. “I’m just saying I worked hard 33 years,” says Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., a former detective who helped hunt down the Green River serial killer and retired as King County sheriff. He earned a $109,101 pension in 2012—fourth highest in Congress. “Anyone who looks at a 33-year career and watches someone retire and says they don’t deserve that retirement, I would vigorously disagree with that.”
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, accepted a $55,000 pension last year. “I spent over 30 years working in state government and receive a pension just as all other qualified state retirees do,” he said in a statement. Clyburn, the state’s former human-affairs commissioner, has collected roughly $1 million in pension benefits since joining Congress in 1993.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, says such packages can erode public trust in an institution where it’s already in short supply. “Retirement packages remain a concern for taxpayers because they naturally invite comparison to their own situations,” he says. And there aren’t many Americans earning a six-figure paycheck and a five- or six-figure pension.
Or, in Beatty’s case, a quarter-million-dollar pension. Beatty spent more than eight years in the Ohio Statehouse, including a stint as Democratic leader, before landing a job in 2008 as the senior vice president of outreach and engagement at Ohio State University. It was a plum post that came with a $320,000 salary, plus benefits, that vastly inflated her pension. At the time, Ohio used the three highest years of salary to calculate pension payouts; Beatty was in the university job for three years and 20 days. Beatty’s spokesman, Greg Beswick, says she began collecting the money last year, when she was a candidate.
Among Republicans, the biggest retirement package belongs to Rep. Ted Poe of Texas, who has cashed more than $300,000 in combined pay and pensions in each of the last five years. Poe is only 64. He was a Texas prosecutor and a judge, so he has received two pensions since his arrival in Congress in 2005. They were worth $139,382 in 2011. (An “accounting error” that provided him only 11 months of payments from one pension dropped the total to $126,743 last year, according to Poe spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes.) “Under the law of the State of Texas he has earned a pension for his public service to both the county and the state,” Hynes said in an e-mail. In his first eight years in Congress, Poe earned more than $1 million in retirement pay.
Some double-dippers occupy congressional leadership posts. Besides Cornyn and his three pensions, Sen. Roy Blunt, the Republican Conference vice chairman, collected $36,721 in retirement benefits last year from his previous service in Missouri. Records show that Blunt, 63, has collected a pension since 2005. In the House leadership, besides Clyburn, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat, received $20,481 from a pension last year. He has been collecting since 1999 from his dozen years in the Maryland Legislature.
Although the House Ethics Committee’s guidelines say “you must disclose” pension payments as earned income, congressional disclosure is inconsistent. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., list their pensions but not how much—or even if—they withdrew. (Brown’s office did not return calls for clarification.) Others leave their pensions off their forms entirely for years at a time. In a series of amended filings last year, for instance, Cornyn reported that he’d been receiving one of his three pensions as far back as 2006. During his failed Senate campaign, former Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., had to update a decade of disclosures to reflect a state pension he’d previously hidden from public view. He called it an “unintentional oversight.”
NEED VS. WANT
Those collecting pensions range from some of the poorest in Congress to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., whom the Center for Responsive Politics ranked as the third-wealthiest senator in 2011. (His net worth was between $79.6 million and $120.8 million.)
That didn’t prevent Blumenthal from cashing his annual $47,000 state pension, even as Connecticut’s depleted pension fund has struggled. A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States said the state had barely half the money it needed to pay its long-term retirement obligations, the third-worst ratio in the nation.
Blumenthal bristles when asked about whether his personal wealth and congressional salary allow him to forgo the pension. “The benefits I’m receiving from the state were earned over more than two decades of public service, and they’re two separate entities, two separate governments, and … they’re being paid according to law,” he says. “I’m not going to comment as to any aspect of my financial disclosure. I would just say, I seek to give back through public service and other ways such as the charitable contributions that my wife and I make.”
Feinstein is the second-wealthiest lawmaker to draw a pension, according to CRP’s rankings, which estimate the California Democrat’s net worth at between $42.8 million and $98.7 million. Her pension, worth $54,925 in 2012, is from her time as mayor of San Francisco. She has collected about $850,000 in retirement benefits since she joined the Senate two decades ago. Feinstein declined to comment for this story.
Feinstein is hardly the longest-tenured congressional pensioner. That honor falls to 90-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest member of the House, who spent a decade in the Texas Legislature before taking a seat in Congress in 1981. The Republican (who was a Democrat until 2004) has been collecting a Texas state pension ever since. In those 32 years he earned some $1.3 million in retirement benefits. (Many years in the 1980s he didn’t list specific amounts; this analysis presumes his pension remained flat during those years.) His 2012 pension was $65,748. “I didn’t write the law,” Hall said in a statement. “I complied with the law, and I contributed as was allowed under the law during my official service in Texas.”
Not every member of Congress who is eligible for a pension chooses to collect. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., a retired Army colonel who won his seat in 2010, says he writes a check every month for his full military pension, minus taxes owed, to the U.S. Treasury. It was a decision he came to jointly with his wife. “The salary that we get as a congressman is very generous,” Gibson says. “We did not want to double-dip on the taxpayers in a time of fiscal challenge.”
The Gibsons aren’t rich by congressional standards. They hold no stocks, bonds, or mutual funds—only a single bank account with between $100,000 and $250,000. It earned less than $1,000 in interest last year. Still, he declined to judge his better-off colleagues who are collecting twice. “It’s a personal decision people have to make,” he says.
Rep. William Keating of Massachusetts, who pulled $110,743 from his pension in 2012—second-largest of any Democrat—donates all of it, after taxes, to a nonprofit that assists child-abuse victims. “The work done by the caring professionals there is priceless,” Keating, a former legislator and district attorney, said in a statement.
Many states offer especially sweet pension packages for their elected officials.
Take the curious case of Rep. Trey Gowdy. The conservative Republican served for a decade as a district attorney in South Carolina, where the retirement system requires 24 years of service to qualify for a pension. But a controversial perk allows solicitors and judges to purchase extra years of service without actually working them. The practice, called “airtime,” lets employees draw bigger pensions if they fork over a lump sum on the front end.
It appears Gowdy exercised this option. (His office refused multiple requests to clarify his activity.) His financial records report a loan in 2009 of between $250,000 and $500,000 for “purchase of SC solicitors and judges retirement.” So, in 2011, the year after he rode the tea-party wave into Congress promising to slash government spending, he reported $88,432 in pension income—one of the 10 largest in Congress. He was 46.
Last year, Gowdy reported a far smaller pension. His spokesman, Nicholas Spencer, says Gowdy listed the package in a different section of the report “because pensions are not reportable as outside earned income,” citing advice from “Ethics counsel.” The House Ethics panel’s published guidelines, however, say pensions should be reported as income.
In Maine, special rules allow former governors to collect a pension no matter how many total years of state service they’ve accrued. That’s how Angus King, who served two terms as governor and now is the state’s independent U.S. senator, collected a $30,488 pension last year. “It’s under the law, and it has no relationship to whatever I do after,” King says. As for the idea of forgoing it because of his $174,000 Senate salary, he says, “I don’t quite see the argument.”
In Pennsylvania, former state legislators can start collecting their pensions a decade earlier than most other state workers. That’s how Republican Rep. Charlie Dent started collecting his $16,000 pension in 2010, the year he turned 50. And how Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Democrat, garnered her legislative pension beginning in 2005, the year she was sworn into Congress. She was 56 at the time. Schwartz is currently running for governor and would decline her $18,340 pension if elected, her spokesman Greg Vadala says.
In 2001, Pennsylvania state legislators boosted their own pensions by 50 percent. The same state law lifted teacher and rank-and-file state worker pensions by only half that. Both Dent and Schwartz were among those who voted against the Pennsylvania pension bump. But Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach, 58, voted for it, and now he’s a beneficiary. He has collected a legislative pension since 2003. It was worth $15,400 last year and became the subject of attack ads by his Democratic opponent. He e-mailed a statement: “Again, this is information that has been shared with my constituents countless times and has been fully disclosed every year.” Gerlach noted that he paid into the system for 12 years.
“It’s really unconscionable—the fact that they’re collecting a pension while drawing a salary for service at the federal level,” says Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a conservative group that fashions itself as a state version of the Club for Growth. “Our pension system is $48 billion underfunded. Honestly, I don’t know how they can look voters in the eye.”
Knepper reserved his biggest rage for Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., who served in the Statehouse for 24 years, and brought home $90,867 in retirement benefits last year. A member of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Pitts has received $1.4 million from his pension since he joined Congress in 1997. His office says his pension tops $90,000 annually because he combined his service in the military and as a teacher. Knepper says he’s galled that Pitts “really represents himself as a conservative” to voters while “absolutely double-dipping.”
Not all tea-party activists are in agreement. Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, one of the nation’s most active groups, doesn’t begrudge federal lawmakers who make use of the current pension system. “An employee is going to take advantage of any benefits they’re provided—it’s just human nature,” Russo says. Instead, conservatives should focus on enacting broader change, he says. “The person who gets the benefit didn’t create the system.”
BIG GOVERNMENT BENEFITS
Reforming that system, Coffman says, is the point of his legislation to eliminate congressional pensions. “The part that I oppose is having a defined-benefit retirement plan for members of Congress—and have argued against a defined-benefit program when I was at the state level,” he tells National Journal.
But isn’t he taking part in a defined-benefit program?
“I am,” he replies. “I am.”
Coffman’s $55,547 retirement benefit is a pittance in the scheme of the state’s pension-fund finances, but, as he argued when he presented his pension-axing bill in committee, symbolism matters. Colorado’s pension fund has been under duress in recent years. State workers there must now contribute more, work longer, and receive less after retirement under a 2010 law, says Katie Kaufmanis, a spokeswoman for Colorado’s retirement system.
A former state treasurer who had a seat on Colorado’s pension board, Coffman had previously taken on the most extreme cases of “double-dipping” at the state level, in which state or school employees would retire, collect a pension, and then be rehired by the exact same employer. “The state’s pension fund is bleeding red, and the little things like this are aggravating it,” Coffman told the Colorado Springs Business Journal in 2004. “Maybe we should suspend pensions [when people go] back to work,” he added.
Coffman’s situation isn’t exactly the same: He’s collecting state benefits and a federal paycheck, not double-dipping with the same employer. (“I’m a military retiree too,” Coffman notes. He resigned his state treasurer post in 2005 to rejoin the Marines and serve in Iraq.) Still, he stumbles in defending his decision to draw both a paycheck and a state pension. “I fought for reform when I was in state, and I’m fighting to reform the system now,” he says. “At states, they ought to end the defined-benefit portion programs.… I’m certainly a beneficiary of it, but at the state level that’s unsustainable, too, and that’s going to have to change.”
Other Republicans, too, have introduced legislation to limit congressional pensions while collecting a public retirement benefit. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Fla., the former Hernando County sheriff, earned $72,339 from his pension last year; he introduced legislation in 2011 and 2013 to let House members opt out of their congressional pension (it’s currently mandatory) and titled it the Congress Is Not a Career Act. Nugent presented his measure to the same committee on the same day as Coffman made his proposal.
Nugent says he introduced the bill so he could decline a congressional retirement because “as you point out, I already have a pension.” He further saves taxpayers money by declining federal health insurance coverage, he says. But he objects to the suggestion that he could or should bypass taking his local-government pension while in Congress. “Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I?” he asks. “After 38 years in law enforcement, I worked hard, stuck it out, and I retired, which is kind of what I signed up for.”
Nugent explains that while cops deserve a pension, members of Congress may not. So what about all his colleagues pulling in pensions for state legislative service? “I don’t begrudge anyone. That’s a personal choice on their part,” Nugent says, adding, “That’s between them and their constituents.”
Conservative solutions for America’s finances, in turns out, don’t always correlate with conservative solutions to lawmakers’ personal finances. Cornyn, the triple-pension-collecting senator from Texas, has regularly railed against government waste. Rep. Bill Posey, a Florida Republican, touts on his official website his votes to reform and cut congressional pensions. He makes no mention of his $14,495 state pension. And Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican and a tea-party-style conservative long before the term existed, has railed against a bloated public sector—and the looming pension crisis in his home state—for years. Yet when he arrived in Congress in 2009, he began collecting two taxpayer-supported state pensions, worth $9,579 in 2012. Why didn’t he pass on them? “You’d have to take up that question with Mrs. McClintock,” he says.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the spokesman for Rep. Allyson Schwartz. It is Greg Vadala.