Reform Congress with populist pensions?


A joint session of Congress . Not up for debate: its pensions. Photo by Lawrence Jackson,

A joint session of Congress . Not up for debate: its pensions. Photo by Lawrence Jackson,

In the never-ending salvos fired between the legislative and executive branches over budget cutting, our nation’s debt ceiling, and all matters fiscal, President Barack Obama once proclaimed all government spending “on the table.” No pet rocks.

But in these months leading into midterm elections, and putting aside the separate and considerable deliberation on tax hikes and how they relate to deficit reduction and employment statistics, a good place for our governmental leaders to start would be with their own benefits.

In full disclosure, my military service qualified me to receive veteran’s benefits. As the years pass, many have eroded. According to the Department of Defense, more cuts are on the way as part of the endless Beltway belt-tightening. Just recently the proposed reductions to military retiree COLAs sparked a national firestorm, causing Congress to take a step back, almost on its heels.

Something isn’t quite right when, as a nation, we chip away at the promises we make to veterans. We woo them as young recruits, and then continue to re-enlist them with varying incentives. The sense of having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet comes to mind, particularly in light of the past decade of multiple combat deployments to the Middle East.

This is also exacerbated by the fact that only the highest ranking generals make close to the base salary of a Congressman or Senator ($174,000), not to mention the millions apportioned annually to each member in operating expenses and allowances. So the earnings, as well as savings, of a veteran over a minimum 20 year career is far less than that of any member of Congress.

On face value, that’s fine. Congress has long been criticized for voting itself raises even in the toughest of economic times, but let’s grant them that doing the nation’s business is momentous work that commands such action.

Yet with midterm elections right around the corner, and what now seems to be the annual ritual of a debt crisis – except, of course during said elections year – it would be a fitting matter of leadership and principle to see even a token debate on scaling back Congressional pensions, which are not tied to the Social Security system.

Why pensions, even symbolically?

For starters, one of the three tiers of benefits allows a representative or senator a pension at age 62 after only five years of service. (The other two programs: 50 years old with 20 years of service, and 25 years of service at any age – all pretty good deals.)

To be sure, no one is getting rich on these stipends. The amount of a congressman’s pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of these retirement annuities may not exceed 80 percent of final pay.

It doesn’t take a class warrior to demagogue that issue into a painful place for our nation’s leaders. Everyday people wonder about it. While many private retirement systems have vesting timetables, and five years is not uncommon, it’s virtually impossible to find even one taxpayer funded system that hands over annuities – at any age – based on just five years of employment.

Let’s not forget that members of Congress have considerable marketing cachet and career opportunities when their legislative days are done. Most of this influence comes from association with the office, not necessarily any measure of success or failure while occupying it.

Residual income potential comes from many lucrative corners: News analysts. Speaking engagements. Book deals. Professorships. The same can’t be said, though, of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant.

To be fair, there are a few members who refuse to participate in the current federal retirement system, and also (unsuccessfully) vote down pay raises. And we should not begrudge anyone in America their just desserts – it just doesn’t seem kosher to approve your own increases using someone else’s money (read: ours).

Also, for those who would claim that monetarily this move amounts to a grain of sugar in a pot of coffee, they would be correct. But sometimes you don’t need to sweeten the drink heavily; rather, just show the willingness to do so.

Billionaire Warren Buffet has famously developed a list of Congressional reforms he feels would totally break the careerist mindset so steeped in the House and Senate. At the heart of those proposals are term limits and, yes, compensation reform, starting with pensions.

When the citizenry’s work is at hand, even a gesture toward a more populist pension would be welcome. As a sign of leadership, it goes a long way in restoring faith and hope with the shrinking middle class.

Those aren’t just buzzwords. Neither is “sacrifice,” another term we hear quite a bit, but rarely see demonstrated from the halls of our federal government.

Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.