Congress: Living High on the Backs of Taxpayers
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The Fiscal Times
August 4, 2010

Ann Kirkpatrick is part of a rarefied group. With an annual salary of $174,000, she earns more than 97 percent of American workers. She’s also got a generous guaranteed pension, great health benefits, including on-site care, lots of free travel and an expense account that could make a corporate titan drool. She thinks it’s time that she took a pay cut.

Congresswoman Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Arizona, recently sponsored legislation to cut Congressional pay because she doesn’t think legislators should live like kings when the rest of the country is suffering. If she’s successful, it would be the first time legislators have cut their own pay since the Great Depression.

“I think we should lead by example,” Kirkpatrick said. “As Congress considers where to make budget cuts to get our fiscal house in order, members need to do the right thing and start with their own pay.”

Even if Kirkpatrick is successful—a long shot—it would take more than a 5 percent pay cut to scale back the regal lifestyle of America’s elected representatives. While taxpayer unrest has caused legislators to lose some perks over the last few years, like free haircuts and subsidized meals in the legislative dining rooms, the litany of extras that legislative leaders enjoy are taking an increasing amount of cash out of taxpayer pockets even as the federal deficit balloons to previously unimagined levels, said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union in Washington, D.C.  As the economy was crashing and companies were cutting back, appropriations for the legislature soared 17 percent over the past two years to $4.66 billion, according to NTU.

Worse, the full cost of legislative perquisites is impossible to estimate, says Paul Singer, associate editor and investigative reporter at Roll Call, a newspaper that’s covered the capital since 1955. That’s because legislative travel to foreign lands—like those “fact finding” trips to Italy—are so badly accounted for that Singer found a $30 million gap between the amounts legislators claimed to have spent when compared to what the U.S. Treasury said it paid for the same trips. Singer recently received a copy of a report done by the Congressional Research Service that underscored how sketchy disclosure requirements are for travel expenses.

When members of Congress fly on military jets, which is often, the cost is not recorded at all. Fly on Air Force One or one of the military’s many Gulfstream four jets and the cost is listed as a footnote — “military air transport” — on expense disclosure forms, as if it were free.

To be sure, a job in Congress requires some expenses that others don’t have. You need to have two homes, for example—one in your home district and one in Washington, D.C., where you work. And there are plenty of urban legends about the perks legislative leaders receive—including the fallacious notion that after as little as one term legislators receive a full salary as a pension for life. (Congressional pensions were scaled back in 1984, but even then, you’d only be guaranteed 12.5 percent of your pay after a single term.) Still the facts are starling enough. Here’s the true story of what we provide our elected representatives and how that compares to the real world.

Pay:  Members of Congress set their own, not unlike some state assemblies. While legislators were paid nothing more than a $6 “per diem” allowance back when the country was founded, the rank and file members now receive a tidy $174,000 salary, which is automatically adjusted each year based on changes in the employment cost index. The automatic pay increase was nixed in 2010, partly as a response to the uproar when Social Security payments were held stagnant.

If you’re a House or Senate leader, you get more.  The Speaker of the House gets $223,500, while both minority and majority leaders in the House and Senate take home $193,400.

To put that in perspective, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that just 5.1 million Americans earn more than $150,000 annually out of the nation’s 240.1 million workers. That means members of Congress earn more than 97 percent of the country.

Pensions: Back in 1984—the end of another great recession—furor over legislative pensions ushered in reform. Legislative exemptions from contributing to the Social Security system were eliminated and over-the-top pensions that would pay 50 percent of your highest salary after 20 years of service were replaced with a less-generous pension, plus Social Security.