All right, I’ve seen a few of these: “Argh, congresspeople get cushier retirement benefits than the military! How awful/evil!”
So let’s take a look at how much money people in Congress make and what retirement benefits they get compared to people in the military.
Complicated. There are charts for the basic per month pay, because it depends on two things: your rank and your years of service. Officers make more than enlisted and generally the longer you serve, the more you get paid. The military also provides allowances for housing, clothing and food. On top of the base monthly pay, there’s additional compensation based on skills, duty locations and hazard. Some examples: submarine duty pay, jump pay, hazardous duty pay, hostile fire pay and cost of living allowance (offsets costs of living in a particular location, usually overseas).
That’s how it works. The CBO did a report in 2007 examining military compensation. Here’s their chart comparing civilian and military pay:
Some useful information to compare with congressional pay: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gets more than $243,000 a year in base pay.
Regular Representatives and Senators: $174,000.
House and Senate majority/minority party leaders: $193,400.
Speaker of the House: $223,500.
That’s not, of course, including the allowances they get to help them fulfill their duties. The average Members’ representational allowance in 2011, according to a Congressional Research Service report, was $1,446,009. Yes, nearly $1.5 million. This allowance is for things like furnishing the district home offices, paying legislative and constituent services staff, franking mail, traveling between their district and D.C., and sending people to conferences and caucuses. All pretty legitimate activities. Senators likewise have allowances for staff and offices. The amounts there ranged from $3,149,536 to $4,967,505.
Now, all that money has to be spent on job-related things – they can’t use it to campaign or anything like that. (Not bringing up the incumbent advantage conferred by constituent services etc. etc.)
Just as complicated. Technically, the military retirement pay isn’t a “pension” – active personnel don’t pay into any system and, in fact, retired military can be involuntarily called up for active duty. Unlikely but, you know, it’s legal.
There is no minimum retirement age for when a retired military person can start receiving their retired pay. So you could join the military at 18, stay in for 20 years, retire, and immediately begin receiving 50 percent of your base pay in your highest 36 months of duty at the age of 38.
Under the default system, High 36, military personnel get 2.5 percent of the average of their highest 36 months of base pay, multiplied by their years of service. This means that after 40 years, you’d get 100 percent of your highest three years’ base pay. Hypothetically, if you stay in longer than 40 years, you can get more than 100 percent.
The military is also covered under Social Security and retirees can collect 100 percent from both programs.
Congresspeople are covered under the same program as all federal civilian employees – the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Under this program, you must work five years to get any benefits and you won’t start receiving them until you reach the age of 62 unless you’ve been in Congress for 25 years, at which point you can immediately start receiving your pension. There’s sort of a sliding scale of years of service and age at which you can start to receive retirement pay. For example, if you’ve worked 10 years, you can start receiving it at the minimum retirement age (typically 55-56) but it gets docked 5 percent for each year under 62 you are.
How much do they get? Well, it’s 1.7 percent times up to 20 years plus 1 percent times any additional years of the average of their highest three years of pay.
Since we know the current pay of Members of Congress, we can do some maths.
A Senator elected once: six years, $174,000 per year. Retirement pay at 62: $17,748/year.
In the 112th Congress, the mean number of terms for Representatives was 4.9 and the mean number of terms for Senators was 1.9. So the average Representative serves about 10 years and would receive $29,580/year after reaching 62.
Members of Congress pay 1.3 percent of their annual salary into this system. They also pay into Social Security and can collect that. The amount they can receive is capped out 80 percent of the average of their highest three years – although to even get that much, they’d have to have served 66 years and even Robert Byrd only got to 57 years.
So, the military retirement plan is actually way better than congressional retirement. Military pay? Not quite so much, but (on average) it beats civilian sector pay.