PAYING FOR CONGRESS
Congress decided what to pay itself at its very first session in 1789. Paying legislators has long been viewed as an assurance the nation won't be run only by elites who must rely on private income to enable them to take public office. The questions about Congressional pay these days surround the rate rather than the concept.
Some citizens groups are questioning the results of a 1989 "reform" bill which wrote into law an automatic yearly pay increase based on cost of living calculation. The pay raise is automatic unless Congress itself decides to opt out for any given year. In 1988 Congress people were paid $89,500, today they are paid $158,100.
Some critics say that this high salary in the top 5 percent of all American wage earners and top 5% of all American households removes the representatives from the concerns of the average citizen. But, say others, our elected representatives should be those who could be at the top of any American profession. Don't we want to attract the best and the brightest with good pay? Tell us what you think on the message boards.
CONGRESSIONAL PENSIONS AND YOURS
As reported by NOW in "Pension Pain," some American corporations are attempting to cut costs by changing traditional defined benefit pension plans for retirees to what are called "cash balance plans." And this has brought Congressional pensions into question too.
A defined benefit pension plans promise workers a specific monthly benefit at retirement. The amount of the benefit is known in advance, usually based on factors such as age, earnings, and years of service. A cash balance plan defines the promised benefit in terms of a stated account balance. In a typical cash balance plan, a participant's account is credited each year with a "pay credit" (such as 5 percent of compensation from his or her employer) and an "interest credit" (either a fixed rate or a variable rate that is linked to an index such as the one-year treasury bill rate). Increases and decreases in the value of the plan's investments do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. Thus, the investment risks and rewards on plan assets are borne solely by the employer.
This system benefits younger workers, rather than older workers in defined benefit plans whose monthly payout is usually determined by their salary near retirement — usually their highest years of pay. In a 1999 report, The Department of Labor noted that those most at risk of losing retirement funds by cash balance transfers "are those who, at the time the cash balance plan is introduced, are nearest retirement and who therefore have the greatest interest in and need for retirement benefits." Initially the Treasury department issued regulations allowing corporations to continue conversion to cash balance payments, despite the fact that court decisions that say this is illegal.
The Treasury Department has withdrawn its proposed cash balance regulations for corporations, but the issue is still in play, with hearings expected in this Congressional session.
Congress today has both a 401K type plan and a defined pension benefit which also receives annual increases. The fact that Congress is legislating about cash balance buyouts while itself expecting healthy traditional benefits troubled Vermont's Independent Representative Bernie Sanders. He started a "What's Good for the American Worker Should Be Good for Members of Congress" campaign. Sanders commissioned a study from the Congressional Research Service which converted traditional defined-benefit plans to cash balance plans. They found that a 61-year-old Representative retiring at the end of 2002 after 18 years of service would receive $608,143 under the traditional benefit plan, but only $251,086 under the cash balance plan. (See more examples below.)
CHECKING UP ON CONGRESS
Today the internet can help you exercise oversight of those you've elected.
Below are some links that will help you get to know your own Congress people better, and keep track of what they're legislating on your behalf. You can follow the legislative process step-by-step, as bills get introduced, amended, passed or passed by and review voting records easily online. You can find out who is contributing to the campaign of your representatives. And, you can get a head start on Election 2004 by reviewing who and what is on your local ballot.