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Archive for Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Shed no tears

January 11, 2005

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When members of Congress leave office, willingly or not, they often reap generous "retirement" packages.

There is no reason to shed any tears for the likes of U.S. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, whose 26-year political career ended with defeat in the November elections.

Our U.S. House and Senate members do all right by themselves.

The Employees Benefits Research Institute tells us that about half of Americans aged 55 and older receive pensions, with retirees in the 55-64 age group averaging slightly more than $1,000 a month. Daschle is 57. He will receive a pension that in its first year will total $121,233. Then, according to Jim Abrams of the Associated Press, Daschle can look forward to receiving about $5 million in pension benefits over his expected lifetime for his service in Congress.

The National Taxpayers Union says Daschle, who received a salary of $175,000 as party leader, is the biggest beneficiary among this year's retirees. But his status is hardly exceptional, according to the AP's Abrams.

Former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, age 63, is retiring after 28 years in the House. He will begin with a yearly pension of $102,330 and can expect $3 million over his lifetime. Two other veteran Senate Democrats, John Breaux of Louisiana and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, will each receive $114,000, the same as Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., who lost his bid for an 18th term in Congress.

Unsuccessful Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who did not seek re-election, will not be eligible for a pension until 2015 when he reaches the age of 62. Edwards made millions as a trial lawyer and will receive an estimated $15,500 a year for his six years in the Senate.

Congressional retirees also can reap considerable income from speakers' fees and book deals.

Former American presidents receive annual payments of $180,100. That figure is tied to the salaries of Cabinet secretaries. Franklin Raines, recently ousted chief executive of the federally chartered mortgage lender Fannie Mae, could take home as much as $1.3 million a year. That should be looked into carefully.

The National Taxpayers Union cites recent Congressional Research Service figures that show that in 2002, congressional pensions cost taxpayers about $22 million. Is all this locked in, and will the benefits continue to rise?

"The Republican revolution of 1994 was the last time we heard any serious talk of reforming the congressional pension system," says Pete Sepp of the NTU. "This issue may rear its politically inconvenient head when Congress begins discussing Social Security reform."

It should. But will it?

Time and again, the U.S. Senate and House have been favored with regular pay and benefit hikes, which are factored into the legislative process on an automatic basis and which often sneak through with little public attention.

Those departing members such as Daschle, Gephardt and Crane have worked hard and devoted much to their jobs as public servants. But do they merit the generous retirement packages that have to be funded by fellow citizens?

Congress acting as it does, it is not likely there will be any substantial cuts in the benefits the members have locked in for their colleagues. But when the issue of Social Security is placed on the table and the plight of the average citizen comes more sharply into focus, there should be more than sufficient evidence against any further padding of the retirement stipends for House and Senate members.

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