Congressional Benefits at Taxpayers Expense

Health Insurance

With the current angst among Americans in general and political pundits about the healthcare plans, compensation, and job benefits to members of Congress, it is appropriate to get facts. That’s what we do here:

As of January 1, 2014, all Members of Congress, including representatives of the U.S. Territories, and their designated staff must purchase “health plans offered by an appropriate SHOP as determined by the Director [of OPM]…” in order to receive an employer contribution toward the
coverage. Office of Personnel Management has indicated that Members and staff must use the District of Columbia’s SHOP exchange, known as DC Health Link (the “DC SHOP”). Section 1312(d)(3)(D) of the ACA defines Members of Congress as “ any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate” and congressional staff as “all full-time and part-time employees employed by the official office of a Member of Congress, whether in Washington D.C. or outside of Washington D.C.”
 Contrary to popular belief, Congressional members do not receive free health care. As it does for other federal employees who purchase their insurance through the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP), the federal government provides a subsidy equivalent to 72 percent of the weighted average of all FEHBP premiums. Therefore, Members of Congress (MOC) and staff pay approximately 28 percent of their annual healthcare premiums through pre-tax payroll deductions.
MOC and their staff are also eligible to set salary aside in Flex 125 savings plans, which help the employee pay for healthcare and childcare expenses with pre-tax dollars. If they enroll in high-deductible health plans they can also enroll in health savings accounts. If Members of Congress or staff purchase dental and vision or long-term care insurance, they pay 100 percent of their premiums through pre-tax dollars. Again, these benefits are similar to those offered by many large employers. However, there are two areas where Members of Congress (not staff or family members) can receive free or low-cost health care that the average citizen cannot access. The first is having access to the Office of the Attending Physician. For an annual fee (unspecified), MOC can receive limited care for routine examinations, consultations, and certain diagnostic tests.

The second option is also only available to current MOC. In the Capital region only, they may receive free medical outpatient care at military facilities. If they are outside of the Capital region or if they need inpatient care, then MOC must pay 100 percent of the full cost of that military health care.

Finally, upon separation from political life, MOC may purchase FEHBP insurance if they are otherwise eligible for retirement and if they have had five years of continuous healthcare coverage under their DC SHOP plans. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, members of Congress have a fallback plan. They would be able to return to the FEHBP. Twenty million other Americans won’t.

There is recent information uncovered that puts into question the actual “DC SHOP” program MOC have insurance through. In setting that program up, the Office of Personnel Management entered on the official application form for MOC insurance under Obamacare that the applicant was a group of 50 or less when in fact it includes 535 members of Congress and their staff members. Technically the MOC is NOT eligible for that plan. For that reason they all should be enrolled in private Obamacare plans through the Exchanges.

Compensation

Lawmakers’ $174,000 annual salary is more than three times the average American’s median income ($49,909), and the retirement and health benefits are generous — members are fully vested after only five years of service and eligible for pension at age 50. Since Congress writes and approves the tax code, it’s not surprising that they wrote in a few bonuses for themselves. Members of Congress are able to deduct $3,000 from their annual income tax for any expenses incurred outside of their home state or district. Additionally, all the of the perks given to the members of Congress– including free parking at the office and D.C. airports, child daycare, free meals at the legislative dining hall, and cheap membership to the house gym — are tax free. And the perks don’t stop when they retire: In addition to free health benefits and a generous pension, former members of Congress can send mail for free, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. Additionally, campaign funds can be spent on meals and entertainment for constituents, as well as travel, anytime of the year, whether in session or not.

Travel

How about a business investigation trip to Brazil? Not a problem if you are a member of Congress, so long as it’s “business” related. Just join a committee and chances are you will need to carry out one of these strictly-business-trips overseas at least once.Last year, the Congressional Research Council found that it is nearly impossible for the public to find out which Congressional members make trips and where they go. What’s more, current laws don’t impose any spending limits  on these government trips. The U.S. Treasury simply refills the travel funds on an “as-needed” basis. Additionally, Congress members get to travel between D.C. and their home district for free as often as they like.

Paid Time Off (PTO)

When all that trip-taking wears them down, members of Congress can always fall back on their vacation time. Out of 260 working days in a year, Congress only works 137  of them. In the first 42 weeks of last year, Congress members worked an average of 2.67 days per week. Amazingly, that’s actually a better attendance rate than usual — the last two years, our legislative branch only worked 111 days.

Pay Raises

Can you imagine a workplace where the employees could choose to give themselves a raise, regardless of the financial shape of the place they work for, the current economic climate or even their own job performance? That’s how it works for members of Congress. They don’t have to prove to a boss that they deserve a higher salary; they only need to convince one another that it is a good idea. Then they all vote on it. Since the “Congressional cost-of-living adjustment (COLA)” rule was enacted in 1990, Congress has accepted an annual raise 13 times. Every year, the rule automatically increases congressional salaries in accordance to price indexes. In fact, the only time representatives don’t get a raise is if they vote against it, which they did for 2010 and 2011.

Congressional Office Support Staff

Members of the House receive a $900,000 annual allowance for a staff as well as a $250,000 budget for travel and office expenses, paid for entirely by taxpayers. Each senator, on the other hand, gets a budget close to $3.3 million based on figures from the Congressional Research Service. Again, certain companies do offer lavish pay packages and perks to employees so it may be a bit hypocritical to pick on Congress for this one point. However, I’m not aware of any business out there where all employees equally get at least $1.2 million in expenses at their disposal.

Death Benefits

This one frosts me pretty good: Should a member of Congress be killed while in office, the surviving family of that member would be entitled to receive at least one year’s worth of salary, or a minimum of $174,000. In contrast, family members of soldiers in the United States armed forces who perish while defending our country domestically or overseas are entitled to $100,000 in military death benefits, as well as funeral and burial expenses.

Summary

There is no question those who serve in Congress make personal sacrifices representing the people in their districts. But that representation and exactly what comprises it has changed dramatically over the years. You can bet the framers of the Constitution had no thoughts of legislators crafting for themselves the pay plans, benefits, expense packages, and huge office staffs that exist today. Then being a member of Congress WAS an act of giving to the nation and a community. Now it has become a job — and a pretty good job at that.

The obvious irony of the present system is there is no direct correlation in Congress between production on the job, evaluation of that job, and accountability for all things about that job, and the possibility of losing that job or being penalized by a boss or accountability manager for not conducting that job in the manner prescribed for that legislator. Yes, Americans are technically the bosses of members of Congress. But when did you have your last employee review with your Congressional or Senate representative? For House members the only review available is in the voting booth every two years, for Senators every six years. And, by the way, there are no daily assignment or production charts made available to Americans to actually judge the performance of the legislators. The Media should be there to report factually on job accomplishments and failures and on-the-job-deficiencies, but they report very little without their skewed analysis and partisan perspectives. The bottom line? Americans have no clue about the job performance of individual legislators. That gives Congressional members pretty good job security, doesn’t it!

It is time for Americans to demand that every member of Congress enter into a job atmosphere that parallels those of the Americans they represent: similar job responsibilities that are monitored, graded, and reported to the “bosses.” Compensation, health benefits, retirement, expense allowances, travel, PTO, vacations, Office expense, and any other benefits MUST parallel those of Americans who do NOT have the privilege of a Congressional title.

Unless and until members of Congress are held accountable to specific and exact responsibilities in every area of their jobs and their performance on those jobs, nothing in Congress will change. We will continue to wonder every day “What the heck are they doing on Capitol Hill? My income is stagnant, cost of living is going up, retirement benefits are shrinking, and no one in Congress seems to care.”

And we will continue to have NO answers.

 


One thought on “Congressional Benefits at Taxpayers Expense

  1. Scott Unclebach Reply

    Thank you for the clarity on this!! I agree with you 100%. As a business owner I can understand how disruptive the political process can be and basically turning your life into 1/3 of year away from home. That being said lets pay properly and fairly for the work so people are not seeking this as a job, but as a servant leader wanting to really help our country like when you serve in the military. Change is needed!

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