It still pays better to retire as a member of Congress than as a federal employee, according to government data.
Retired lawmakers enrolled in the Federal Employees Retirement System on average received $26,560 more in pension benefits as of Oct. 1, 2012, than FERS enrollees who retired from federal agencies. The most recent available data for FERS lawmakers shows a mean yearly annuity of $40,560 in 2012, compared to $14,000 for federal workers. For federal retirees enrolled in the older Civil Service Retirement System, the disparity was even greater: The average pension for a retired member of Congress in 2012 was $71,472 compared to an annual retirement benefit of $38,172 for federal CSRS employees.
The Congressional Research Service published a March 19 report looking at congressional retirement benefits. According to the report, there were 527 retired lawmakers as of Oct. 1, 2012, drawing a federal pension based fully or in part on their congressional service. The information on federal employees is from the Office of Personnel Management’s Statistical Abstracts for fiscal 2012.
The disparity in average pensions between the two groups can be attributed to the higher accrual rate for lawmakers who served before Dec. 31, 2012, and the higher average salary retired members enjoy compared to the average federal worker. The average federal salary in September 2012 was nearly $78,500. Rank-and-file members of Congress currently earn $174,000 annually.
Pension benefits are based on a formula that includes the three years of an enrollee’s highest earnings during their federal service, also known as the “high-three.” Congress lowered the higher accrual rates for lawmakers in the 2012 Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act to match the rate of federal employees. In addition, members of Congress and other federal employees who enroll in FERS beginning in 2014 are required to contribute 4.4 percent of their pay toward their defined benefit plan. That is up from 3.1 percent for lawmakers and executive branch employees elected/hired in 2013, and 1.3 percent for lawmakers elected before Dec. 31, 2012, and 0.8 percent for federal employees who joined government service before that date.
The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association views the median annuities of federal workers as a more accurate gauge of what most retirees are receiving on a monthly and yearly basis than the mean data, in part because certain retired federal employees, including law enforcement officials and air traffic controllers, receive larger pensions than the average retiree. According to OPM’s fiscal 2012 data, the typical FERS retiree earned a median monthly annuity of $889, or $10,668 annually. For CSRS retirees, the median monthly benefit was $2,769 or $33,228 per year. USA Today in 2012 published a report that found more than 21,000 former federal employees were collecting at least $100,000 annually in pension money.
The amount of federal pensions continues to ignite debate on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers would like to see federal employees’ defined benefits reduced, if not ended, and new federal workers now must pay more toward their pensions than their colleagues. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., introduced a bill in 2013 that went nowhere that would have eliminated defined-benefit pension plans for members of Congress, but allowed them to continue participating in the Thrift Savings Plan.