A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Congressional Pensions


Q: Does a United States senator receive his full pay upon retiring?

A: No. A member of Congress can’t receive more than 80 percent of his or her final salary upon retirement, and the average is much less.

FULL ANSWER

We get this question a lot because of a chain e-mail that people keep forwarding without checking it out. According to Snopes.com it’s been going around for more than seven years in one form or another. It claims members of Congress get lavish pensions and also claims they don’t pay into Social Security. (They do pay Social Security taxes, as we pointed out in an earlier “Ask FactCheck” item.)

Here’s the real deal, as explained on the U.S. Senate’s “Virtual Reference Desk” site:

Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at age 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. They are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a member’s retirement annuity may not exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary.

It is of course possible that a member of Congress who retires with a starting pension equal to 80 percent of final salary would, after many years of annual cost-of-living adjustments, see that pension rise to equal their final salary. But that is also true of any federal employee, and it is rare. Most congressional pensions are far less.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, as of October 1, 2006, there were 290 former members of Congress who had retired under the Civil Service Retirement System, the old system which had drawn much criticism for being too generous. They were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. That’s a fraction of the current salary for rank and file House and Senate members, which is $165,200 per year.

The pensions of the 143 former members who retired under the newer Federal Employees’ Retirement System (FERS) average even less. Their pensions averaged $35,952, according to the CRS. Members elected in 1984 or later are automatically covered by FERS unless they decline coverage. That was the year Congress revised the old system and came under Social Security for the first time.

House and Senate pensions still draw criticism for being overly generous. The conservative National Taxpayers Union issued a report in 2005 that highlighted some of the highest pensions. And it is true that House and Senate members get a better deal than ordinary federal employees. Members of Congress get more pension credit for each year of service, but also have less job security.

Taxpayers do subsidize the pensions of former members of Congress, but they subsidize pensions of retired military and civil service employees as well. Many private employers pay into pension funds or retirement accounts for their employees, too.

We should also note that congressional pensions are not entirely free to the members. A House or Senate member pays 6.2 percent of taxable wages in Social Security taxes, and those who choose to participate in FERS also pay 1.3 percent of full salary to the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund.

Sources

Purcell, Patrick J. “Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress,” 9 Feb. 2007.