Reforming Congress: fact and fiction
Perception, as the Mercedes-Benz ads used to say, is not always reality.
There is, for instance, a chain email circulating that calls for a "Congressional Reform Act" to stop many of the outrageous privileges of the federal legislature.
Among the examples given that should justifiably outrage all Americans:
• Members of Congress are exempt from laws that apply to ordinary citizens. That's outrageous.
• Members of Congress can retire with their full salary after one term in office. That's unbelievable.
• Members of Congress should pay into the Social Security system, just like all Americans. Damn right!
• Members of Congress should be stripped of their current, cushy health care program and be required to participate in the same health care system as the American people. Right on!
• Members of Congress can vote themselves a pay raise whenever they want. Hard to believe.
These practices truly are outrageous and unbelievable, but that's because they're also untrue. Many well-informed people already know that, but many more, apparently, don't.
And since we have been recipients in recent weeks of two of the chain emails making these claims, we thought it might help shed some much-needed light if we separated fact from fiction.
As numerous fact-checking websites have already explained, no member of Congress is exempt from the nation's laws. It's true that Article I of the U.S. Constitution exempts federal legislators from arrest while traveling to or from, or while attending, a session of either House of Congress. But no member of the House or Senate has ever avoided arrest by taking permanent refuge in the U.S. Capitol and the list of Congress members who have been arrested, convicted and jailed is significant and includes former GOP House Majority Leader Tom Delay (although he is free on bail pending appeal) and Democrats Dan Rostenkowski and James Traficant, both of whom served prison terms.
It would be an outrageously sweet deal if members of Congress could retire after one term at their full $174,000 salary. But they can't. Here are the facts:
Members of Congress contribute 1.3 percent of their salary into their retirement plan and pay 6.2 percent of their salary in Social Security taxes. No Members of Congress are eligible for a pension until they reach the age of 50, or have served at least 20 years, and all members must serve at least five years to receive any pension.
The size of a congressional pension depends on a complex formula based on number of years served and the highest three years of salary, and can't exceed 80 percent of final pay. At present, 290 retired members of Congress are receiving an average annual pension of $60,972 while, under a more recent, revised pension system, 123 retired members had an average annual pension of $35,952 in 2006.
Members of Congress cannot vote themselves pay increases, they do pay Social Security taxes, and they buy into a package of healthcare programs like most Americans lucky enough to have insurance.
Examine the claims of the Congressional Reform Act and they evaporate in the light of day.