You Only Wish You Could Live Like a Congressional Fat Cat
By David Zeiler, Associate Editor, Money Morning
March 1, 2013
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Should Congress Eliminate Its Tax-Payer Funded Perks... And Live Like The Rest Of Us?
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With annual salaries more than triple that of the average American worker, short work weeks and an array of benefits that would make most CEOs jealous, it's no wonder members of Congress can't manage the nation's budget.
That's why the nation is more than $16.5 trillion in debt and needs to borrow 46 cents out of every dollar it is spending this year.
And it's a big reason why Congress can never seem to figure out how to solve any of America's most pressing fiscal problems.
Congress hasn't even passed a budget in four years, even though it is required by law to do so every year.
You won't believe how well these folks live - and every dime that pays for this lavish lifestyle comes straight out of the pockets of taxpayers.
Congressional Perks - Compensation and Basic Benefits
Let's start with annual pay. Each of the 535 members of Congress earns at least $174,100 a year (those in leadership positions earn more). Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported last fall that median household income in the U.S. fell 1.5% to $50,054 in 2011 - the fourth consecutive annual decline and the seventh decline in the past 10 years.
On top of that, each member receives an allowance to cover such things as the salaries of their staff, office furniture and basic travel expenses. Members of the House get $1.52 million per year, members of the Senate, $4.2 million.
In the days of paper ledgers, such expenses were recorded in detail, so taxpayers would know that a lawmaker spent $500 on a desk, for example. Today, the expenses are recorded in a database that the public can access over the Internet, but most expenses are described vaguely with such terms as "office equipment."
While members of Congress do not get free healthcare - they pay about 28% of the total premium - they do get to choose from an array of about 10 different insurance plans, just like any other federal employee.
However, legislators do have on-site medical care via the Office of the Attending Physician, located on the first floor of the Capitol building. Better still, they have access to medical treatment at any military hospital - and can get free outpatient care at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital.
And when it comes time to retire, few workers will enjoy benefits as fine as those bestowed on members of Congress.
For one thing, lawmakers qualify for a pension, a benefit that has been all but eliminated for most American workers. Long-serving members can qualify for pensions that exceed the salaries of most workers.
For example, a member who retired at the end of 2012 with 20 years of service would qualify for a pension of $59,160, according to the Congressional Research Service. Better still, that pension will be adjusted for inflation - almost unheard of in the private sector.
Plus, lawmakers can participate in the federal employee 401(k)-style "Thrift Savings Plan" that matches the first 5% of their contribution. And on top of that, they also qualify for full Social Security benefits.
Mind you, all this tax money is going into the pockets of a group of people who already are extremely well off. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires. Some are worth tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions.
Meanwhile, the median net worth of the average American household is $66,470.
You'll Never Get Perks Like These
As extravagant as the basic congressional perks are, they're just the beginning.
These lavish benefits include:
Full-time pay, part-time hours: You'd think that working in Congress would require long hours, but it's really a part-time job. The Congressional 2013 calendar has only 126 working days scheduled. That's an average workweek of about 2.5 days.
Free travel: Members of Congress have several means of getting free travel. They can use money from their annual allowance, which typically pays for trips back to their home district. But a bottomless Treasury account pays for "fact-finding trips" to almost anywhere in the world. Spouses are welcome. Incredibly, each member gets an allowance of up to $3,000 per day for each trip. Lawmakers typically pocket any money left over. Finally, members can also accept free trips from private sponsors if it has to do with official congressional business. Such trips can include not only coach rate airfare, but food and lodging as well. And again, spouses are welcome.
Special tax breaks: Most legislators need a home away from home somewhere in Washington, so clearly they need a $3,000 tax deduction for "living expenses." Meanwhile, few of the other lucrative benefits they get are in any way taxable.
Airline privileges: Some may know that representatives have guaranteed free parking at two major Washington areas airports, Dulles International and Reagan National. But they also have hotlines to the major airlines to speed the reservation process. What's more, lawmakers typically reserve seats on multiple flights but only pay for the seats they use.
Gym memberships: Senate and House members each have their own exclusive gym that is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. House members pay just $20 a month in dues; senators pay $40 a month. It's unclear what it really costs to operate the two facilities; the expenses are buried in other budgets and Congress has refused to provide more details.
Private elevators - and a subway: Perhaps legislators need the gym because they don't get enough exercise by walking. They have their own personal subway to shuttle them between their offices, committee rooms and the
Capitol. They also have members-only elevators with staffers running ahead of them to push the buttons so they can hop right on without waiting.
Free mail: The "franking" privilege allows members of Congress to send out official mail to their constituents on the taxpayer dime. For the rest of us, the cost of a first-class postage stamp just went up by another penny to 46 cents.
"You get the feeling like they just don't get what's going on out there in the real world when they have all these perks at their fingertips," Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, told ABC News. "The gyms and the hair care and all the parking facilities that they have ... They're really living a different life than the average American."
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