The Amazing Self-Basting Turkey

August 31, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

Washington -- A report compiled by U.S. Term Limits and the National Taxpayers Union could signal the last ladle of gravy on the self-basting congressional turkey.

Not content with raising their own pay and voting themselves benefits few others can enjoy, members of Congress have provided for their retirement years ''entitlements'' that are more than twice as large as any received by executives at Fortune 500 companies.

The average lifetime pension for members of Congress, notes U.S. Term Limits, is now more than $1.5 million.

Twenty-three could receive benefits of $89,000 per year if they retire this year.

Two hundred thirty-one House members could collect more than $1 million in lifetime benefits.

Fifty-seven are eligible for $2 million or more. Twelve can claim $3 million pensions.

Two are in the rarefied $4 million camp.

Nineteen members have refused to take part in the pension system.

The average American worker hopes his or her company survives long enough to pay a pension. Many try to put away enough in an IRA or 401(k) plan as a hedge against catastrophe. Members of Congress don't have to worry. While average Americans may experience diminished lifestyles or struggle in retirement, former congressmen and -women will continue living high on the hog.

House Speaker Tom Foley, who is fighting in court a term-limits provision passed by voters in Washington state, is eligible to receive the highest initial paycheck of $112,393. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., could collect a total of $5,126,222 if he retires this term.

Pensions are based on ''federal service'' and include military service and even work as a congressional staff member.

Millionaires, such as Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, are eligible for $3,127,089 and $1,152,402 respectively, according to the report.

The retiring Senate Majority leader, George Mitchell, will take with him $2,113,676.

But the megastars of ''Congressional Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' are Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Tex., $4,267,724, and Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., $4,230,635.

The average family income in 1991 was $34,788. That is one-third the size of retiring Minority Leader Bob Michel's pension. A mechanic averages $489 per week. Rep. Michel's pension pays him more than $2,000 a week.

Twenty-eight million Social Security recipients fall far short of xTC congressional pensions. Their average income is $674 per month for individuals and $1,140 per month for married couples. Congressman Michel will get $8,600 per month.

So that they won't be subject to inflation, members of Congress voted 4 percent cost-of-living adjustments for themselves. Less than 10 percent of private sector pensions offer formal COLAs, says the report.

Members can retire with full pension benefits at age 62 after serving in Congress for only five years. If they've served 10 years, they can retire at 60. And if they serve 20 years, they can claim their pensions at 50.

''This bloated pension plan wouldn't exist,'' says the U.S. Term Limits report, ''if congressmen didn't know that once elected, they could bank on winning re-election as long as they wish and retire to a life of luxury on their own terms, in their own good time.''

One of President Clinton's lines while campaigning for health-care reform was that the public should get the same kind of health care Congress receives. It is not likely he would say the same thing about retirement benefits, or that Congress would like these figures publicized.

Four years ago when California voters approved term limits for their state legislators, they also eliminated lucrative pension benefits. California Assemblyman Bill Morrow reflected the intent a majority of voters for their public servants when they passed term limits.

He said: ''I knew that I couldn't make a full career out of [elected office] and expect a pension from the state assembly. That was fine with me. I wanted to come up here and do a job.''

With Congress out of town, perhaps the voters will consider how pleasant an experience it is. Might make those voters think a little harder about limits -- to terms and bloated pensions.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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