Around three years ago, Ehren Clovis and I wrote a series of articles on what we called the “mythconceptions” people have about federal benefits (see links to some of these at the end of this article). Among those mythconceptions was the one that Members of Congress have a special pension that will pay them their full salary as a pension for as little as five years of Congressional service.
I remember first hearing this around 20 years ago, and it keeps popping up on Facebook and other places on the internet. Only the names have changed (today’s rumors no longer refer to Senators Kennedy and Byrd).
Given the low esteem in which most citizens hold Congress, this rumor has many willing believers. In March of 2016 only 13% of respondents to a Gallup Poll approved of the job Congress was doing; this was up from 9% in November of 2013.
In fact, the pensions of Members of Congress are computed in the same manner as those for federal employees; how they are computed is based on when the Member of Congress first became covered by the FERS retirement system.
Yes, almost all of them are covered by FERS, just like the vast majority of federal employees are. In order for a Member of Congress to be covered by the CSRS system, they would have to have been in Congress prior to January 1, 1984.
Just like regular federal employees, Members of Congress need five years of service to be vested in a FERS pension, so the occasional “one-term wonder” will not be entitled to a FERS pension when they leave Congress.
In an excellent article (Fable vs. Fact) that appeared in the September 2016 edition of narfe, the magazine of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, David Tobenkin outlines the eligibility requirements for Congressional retirement as follows:
Under both CSRS and FERS, Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at the age of 62 if they have completed at least five years of service, at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service…
These criteria are a combination of regular FERS eligibility requirements and the requirements for special category employees such as law enforcement officers and firefighters. And, yes, Members of Congress contribute from their salaries for their pensions – just like the rest of us do; how much they contribute depends on when they became covered under FERS.
Members of Congress who were covered by FERS up to and including December 31, 2012 have their pension computed in the same manner as do special category employees; that is, the first 20 years of service are calculated at 1.7% of their high-three salary per year, while all additional years are calculated at 1%. Those who were first covered by FERS after December 31, 2012 will have their pension calculated at 1% of their high three salary per year, unless they are age 62 and have 20 or more years of service at retirement, their pensions are calculated at 1.1% per year.
Tobenkin’s article in narfe goes into much more depth about Congressional pensions, Congressional pay, and other issues that affect Congressional compensation.
If you are a NARFE member, I encourage you to read the entire article. If you are not a NARFE member, look into joining the organization; in addition to providing good information for federal retirees and employees, NARFE advocates on behalf of all of us.