Bill would tie lawmakers’ access to retirement benefits to Social Security age

Congressional lawmakers would have to wait until they reach the Social Security retirement age to access their federal annuity benefits under new legislation.

Lawmakers now do not have to wait until they turn the Social Security retirement age -- which typically ranges from 65 to 67, depending on year of birth -- to tap their pensions. Under the Federal Employees' Retirement System, lawmakers are eligible for an immediate, full pension at age 62 or older, if they have completed at least five years of service; they are eligible at age 50 or older if they've served 20 years, or at any age after completing 25 years of federal service. Under the Civil Service Retirement System, members of Congress are eligible for an immediate, full pension at age 60 or older, after a decade of service, or age 62 after five years of federal service.

The amount of their pension depends on their number of years of service and the average of their highest three years of salary. Lawmakers typically become eligible for retirement annuities at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than most other federal employees but also pay more of their salary for retirement benefits.

"It's time for members of Congress to walk in the shoes of everyday Americans," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the bill's sponsor, during a conference call with reporters last week. "Why should members of Congress be treated differently than a steelworker, a waitress or a nurse?"

Brown's bill -- the 2011 Shared Retirement Sacrifice Act -- would not affect federal employees in the executive branch, he said.

According to a January report from the Congressional Research Service, 455 retired members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service, as of Oct. 1, 2009. But the report said the average age of those receiving benefits under CSRS in 2009 was 79; for those under FERS, it was 69.

Members of Congress, depending on when they were first elected to office, are covered under one of four retirement plans: CSRS and Social Security; the CSRS Offset plan, which includes both CSRS and Social Security, but with CSRS contributions and benefits reduced by Social Security contributions and benefits; FERS and Social Security; or Social Security alone. A 1983 law required all members of Congress to participate in Social Security.

Brown's bill partly is in reaction to some calls for increasing the Social Security Retirement age to 69. "While raising the Social Security retirement age might not mean much to some members of Congress, it's cruel to the working men and women whose work takes a heavy physical toll," Brown said. "Many of these Americans struggle to remain in their jobs until age 60, let alone 69."

The National Taxpayers Union endorsed Brown's bill. "Not everyone realizes that the legislative branch enjoys a more generous pension package than most employees in the executive branch do, and not because of the obvious salary differential," said Pete Sepp, vice president for communications and policy, in an email. "There have been very few attempts over previous decades, let alone years, to get control of the congressional pension plan, even though taxpayers find it one of the most offensive perks of office."

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