The Perks of Being a Congressman: Are They Overpaid or Not?

Photo (cc) by Arend Vermazeren

In November, Congress hit a new low. Gallup found our lawmakers’ collective approval rating dropped to a mere 9 percent – yes, that’s a single digit.

Perhaps as a result, the Facebook chain status update machine appears to have kicked into overdrive, with posters demanding, among other things, that Congress live like the rest of us. They claim Congress has exempted itself from Social Security and Obamacare while arranging for members to receive full-income pensions upon leaving office.

Problem is, most of these claims are wrong.

If you’re confused by what you’re reading online, here’s a quick look at congressional compensation plus a fact check of a couple of common complaints making the rounds.

Congressional pay in a nutshell

Let’s start with how much they make.

Members of Congress last saw their salaries increased in 2009 when annual compensation for senators, representatives, delegates and the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico was set at $174,000.

However, those in leadership positions earn more. The speaker of the House is the most highly compensated member of Congress with an annual income of $223,500. The Senate president pro tempore as well as the majority and minority leaders in both the House and Senate all earn $193,400.

And that’s it. No bonuses for being a committee chair or filling other functions. Plus honoraria – such as accepting a fee to attend an event – are prohibited.

Members of Congress are expected to focus most of their time on their legislative duties, but they are allowed to earn an outside income equal to 15 percent of the annual base pay for Level II executives in the federal government. Those executives currently have a base pay rate of $179,700, meaning senators and representatives can earn no more than $26,955 in outside pay each year. In addition, that money can’t come from certain sources, such as allowing their name to be used to endorse brands or products.

All about congressional benefits

Now, let’s talk about benefits beyond pay.

  • Tax benefits. According to the Congressional Research Service, an agency that prepares reports for Congress, senators and representatives can deduct on their income tax form up to $3,000 per year of their living expenses while out of their districts.
  • Health and life insurance. Members of Congress are entitled to purchase health insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program and life insurance through the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance Program. The employee portion of the policy premiums depends on the particular plan selected. U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., notes on his website that he pays $433.63 each month for his Blue Cross Blue Shield family health insurance plan. In addition, he pays $115.09 monthly for family dental and $57.50 a month for $176,000 worth of life insurance coverage.
  • Members’ representational allowance. Each representative receives an office allotment known as an MRA. This money can be used, for example, to pay for staff salaries, postage expenses, office supplies and travel expenses. The MRA cannot be used for any campaign-related expenses, and the actual allowance amount is calculated using factors such as the distance between a district and Washington, D.C. In 2012, MRAs ranged from $1.27 million to $1.56 million. The average allowance was $1.35 million.
  • Senators’ official personal and office expense account: For senators, their version of the MRA is called the SOPOEA. Like the MRA, this account can be used to pay for staff salaries and office-related expenses such as mailings, travel reimbursements and supplies. Senators also use these accounts to maintain their district offices. As with representative allowances, the SOPOEA cannot be used to pay for campaign-related expenses. The Congressional Research Service notes the accounts ranged from $2.96 million to $4.69 million in 2012, with an average of $3.2 million.

Are members of Congress exempt from Social Security?

Thirty years ago that was true, but today’s representatives and senators pay into Social Security and withdraw from it under the same rules as the rest of us.

Whoever started the Internet rumor that Congress is exempt must be old enough to remember the early 1980s, when representatives and senators were part of a pension program called the Civil Service Retirement System. That system did not require participants to pay into Social Security nor did they receive Social Security benefits.

In 1984, a law went into effect that required all members of Congress to participate in Social Security. Then, in 1987, the CSRS was replaced by the Federal Employees Retirement System. As of 2012, newly elected members of Congress contribute 3.1 percent of their pay to FERS. Previously elected members make contributions equal to 1.3 percent of their income.

According to the Congressional Research Service, as of October 2012, there were 527 retired members of Congress receiving pensions based, at least in part, on their elected service. Of these, 312 had retired under CSRS while 215 retired under FERS.

Both systems use a formula based upon an individual’s three highest earning years. The average annual payout for CSRS retirees in 2012 was $71,472, and these individuals averaged 21.1 years of federal civilian service. FERS retirees had average annual benefits of $40,560 and averaged 15.7 years of service.

In addition to FERS, today’s congressmen and women are enrolled in the Thrift Savings Plan, which operates like a 401(k). The government automatically contributes 1 percent of their income into the plan. It will also match up to 5 percent of a member’s contributions. The first 3 percent is a 100 percent match, while the remaining 2 percent gets matched 50 cents on the dollar.

Why doesn’t Congress have to enroll in Obamacare like the rest of us?

This rumor betrays a basic misunderstanding of Obamacare. There is no such thing as Obamacare insurance or Obamacare plans. Instead, Obamacare – known officially as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – is a collection of new regulations regarding how health insurance is to be issued. In addition, its central provision requires virtually all Americans to have health insurance coverage in 2014.

While several groups, such as certain religious sects and the incarcerated, are exempt from the individual health insurance mandate, members of Congress are not one of them. Besides, Congress doesn’t need an exemption since they already get health insurance through their job.

Do congressmen get full-time pay for part-time work?

The Library of Congress reports there have been 147 days of session so far this year. For comparison, the average Joe working five days a week has clocked in 240 days assuming he hasn’t taken any vacation time.

However, session days are only part of the story. Committee meetings, district events and other obligations related to their office may take up more time than the session itself.

The actual amount of time a member of Congress spends working depends on the individual. Some members probably show up for sessions, head home and call it good. Others may be putting in 80-hour weeks all year long between their time on Capitol Hill and events in their district.

And there you have it: the facts and just the facts. Now it’s up to you to decide if their compensation is acceptable or outrageous.

Have you heard another rumor about Congress benefits and perks? Let us know in the comments or on our Facebook page, and it may become part of a future MTN article.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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