Lawmakers get bounty of benefits

AJC Exclusive: Closer look at pay and perks for members of Congress

Washington -- They help determine how much of our paycheck we take home, how we pay for our retirement, and perhaps soon, how we get our health care. So what about members of Congress?

While many of us have seen our paychecks shrink this year, members of Congress got a pay raise.

While most of our retirement accounts were walloped by the stock market decline, senators’ and representatives’ pension plans were protected by cost-of-living increases.

And while senators take up debate beginning Monday on a national health care plan, they’ll do so knowing their own health insurance is better than most Americans.

Here’s a closer look at the benefits of being one of the 535 members of Congress:

Salary

Rank-and-file House and Senate members — including all members of Georgia’s delegation — will earn $174,000 this year, up from $169,300 last year.

Higher-ranking members get more money: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, gets $223,500 in annual salary; the House majority and minority leaders each get $193,400.

Health insurance

Congress has taken heat for having health insurance that’s better than most Americans. Republican U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta, among others, has gone as far as to suggest that members of Congress should be kicked out of their current generous insurance plans and be automatically enrolled into any sort of “pubic option” plan Congress may ultimately pass.

But the fact is, senators and representatives have the same health insurance plan choices as any other federal employee.

One of the most popular government plans is from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

For an individual, the “standard plan” costs $175.08 per month, with the government contributing an additional $363.16. There is a $20 co-pay for doctor’s office visits, and medications cost $10 for generics.

For a family, the monthly premium for the standard Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan is $235.98 per month, with the government paying $707.95. It comes with a $25 co-pay. Generic medications also are $10.

Other health benefits

There are other health benefits that come with high office, however.

Members of Congress get free VIP treatment at military hospitals. When Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Coweta County was suffering from kidney stones earlier this year, for instance, he was rushed to Bethesda Naval Hospital — and he probably didn’t have to wait in line at the emergency room.

For a nominal fee, senators and representatives can also join the congressional gym, open only to members and former members.

One of the most unusual perks may come from the Office of the Attending Physician of the United States Congress. For an annual fee of $503, House and Senate members can designate the official congressional physician to be their primary care doctor — meaning they never have to leave Capitol Hill, deal with crowded doctor’s offices or be subject to the same type of care from a doctor as the rest of us.

The service is optional, however, and not that popular. Among the 435 members of the U.S. House, only 141 signed up for the service this year.

Retirement

One of the best parts of being a member of Congress is retiring from Congress.

Members can participate in the federal retirement system, but their benefits come with cost-of-living increases and are calculated on a much more generous formula than other federal retirees. Senators and representatives also can retire much earlier than other federal workers.

Members must pay 1.3 percent of their salary toward the government pension plan, but it’s worth it for what they get back. According to the National Taxpayers Union, a watchdog group, some of the longest-serving members of Congress could make more in retirement each year than they do in office.

A separate 401(k)-style savings plan also lets members of Congress set aside part of their salary, with a 5 percent government match.

Overall, the National Taxpayers Union estimates that congressional pension benefits are two or three times more generous than what a similarly paid executive in the private sector could expect upon retirement.

Expenses

Rank-and-file U.S. House members get annual allowances of $1.3 million a year for general office expenses. Annual expenses for the highest-ranking House and Senate members can reach up to $4.5 million.

House members are allowed to use that money to pay for up to 18 full-time staff members and four part-time staffers. They can’t use the money for campaigning — but that’s about the only restriction they face.

They can use the money to pay for plane fare to and from their home states, to run their district offices back home or to pay for chauffeurs.

Annual expenses for members of the U.S. Senate are harder to calculate, but they typically run about $2 million per senator. That money, too, can be used almost entirely at a senator’s discretion.

Travel

While members’ travel to and from their home states is typically paid through their annual operating expenses, congressional delegation trips — known as “codels” — can take members, their staff and sometimes their spouses around the globe on government jets. Trips can be cushy mini-vacations, such as conventions in Las Vegas or in sunny resort towns, or they can be dangerously arduous, such as visiting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even better travel perks, as well as fancy dinner parties and other entertainment, come courtesy of private donations to political action committees.

Other perks

Other benefits are truly unique to Congress.

At Washington, D.C., airports, for instance, senators and representatives can use free reserved parking spots.

At the four-story U.S. Capitol, they use private elevators that come with attendants. An underground subway keeps them warm and dry as they travel the few hundred yards between the Capitol and surrounding House and Senate office buildings.

To decorate their offices, senators and representatives can borrow artwork from the Smithsonian Institution.

Finally, Georgia members of Congress get an extra-special perk:

They all get free Cokes and peanuts at their offices — courtesy of Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and the Georgia Peanut Commission.

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