Most of us by now have received at least one of those spam emails about the outrageous privileges and pay of Congress. They have been circulating for years, and spur a large volume of letters I receive from constituents.
There are a lot of good reasons to be mad at Congress right now, from decades of failing to balance the federal budget to the tidal wave of regulations coming from every federal agency in Washington. But the allegations in these emails are not reasons to be mad, because they are false, the stuff of "urban legends," - although you might find it interesting that some of these legends originated in historical facts.
Here are the most common charges circulating over the web, compared to the truth. They are worded a little different in the many variations that are circulating, but the basicsare the same:
Charge: Congressional Retirement -Members of Congress can serve one 2-year term and receive a Congressional Retirement Fund check for full pay for life.
Truth: Members of Congress are enrolled in the same Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) as every other employee of the federal government from the FBI to the Agriculture Department. FERS is governed under the same pension law as private sector retirement plans. All Federal employees must contribute to FERS with every paycheck, and must work 20 years to earn a reduced benefit at age 50, or for 25 years or age 62 to receive unreduced benefits. The retirement amount is based on a percentage formula for years worked and salary earned. No federal employee can ever receive their full salary regardless how long they work, and a Member of Congress who worked two years and left would get nothing.
Charge: Congress Pays No Social Security -- Members don't participate in Social Security.
Truth: Congress participates in Social Security under the same rules as everybody else. But prior to 1984 Congress and all other federal employees were covered under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) and in fact did not pay into - or receive benefits - from Social Security. This was changed under the Reagan Administration. Members of Congress actually pay a small additional withholding tax above what the rest of the country pays to cover the lingering costs of the older pre-1984 CSRS beneficiaries.
Charge: Congressional Pay Raises- Congress should not be able to vote themselves pay raises, and instead should be limited to raises that are the lesser of inflation measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) or 3%.
Truth: Current law already establishes Congressional pay raises at the rate of inflation. But here's the really interesting part -- Congress has to vote to accept their annual cost-of-living increase. The House of Representatives voted to reject that raise for the past 3 years in light of the economic recession. In addition, since the House changed hands in January, it has voted to cut the total House budget by 11.4%.
Charge: Congress Gets Free Healthcare - Members of Congress get free health care, and should instead participate in the same health care system as the American people.
Truth: Members of Congress participate in the same Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP) as all other federal employees. FEHBP is a cafeteria-style health plan modeled after larger private sector employee plans, under which workers have a choice of insurance plans such as Blue Cross, Aetna, etc. It's not free, and Members of Congress pay the same matching premiums, co-pays, and deductibles as all other federal employees, just like private sector employees who participate in their workplace health plans.
But this could soon change. Due to public outrage over Obamacare potentially forcing so many people out of their health plans, House Republicans forced a vote last session that requires Members of Congress and their staff to be kicked out of FEHBP by 2014 and instead placed in whatever Obamacare plan is offered to private sector folks, if Obamacare ever takes effect.
Charge: Congress is immune from the law - Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
Truth: Members of Congress do have to abide by all laws, with one exception. However, Congress in the past WAS exempt from many laws. Under forty years of one-party control of the House, Congress had exempted itself from civil rights and equal employment laws, along with workplace safety standards under OSHA and EPA. The new Congress of 1995 responded by honoring their Contract with America campaign pledge to make Congress abide by the same laws as the rest of America and passed the Congressional Accountability Act, which is now the law of the land, and requires just that.
The lone exception is found under Article 1, Section 6 of the Constitution, which states, "They [Congress] shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." This Constitutional protection exists to prohibit any other governmental authority from undermining the ability of Congress to act by arresting its Members on frivolous or minor charges. But this does not exempt Members of Congress from prosecution after the fact for commission of any offense, it only applies when Congress is in session, and does not include arrest protection from serious criminal charges even then.
There are more of these legends, but these are the most frequently encountered. While the details are fiction, the concerns of millions of Americans as represented in these stories are very real.
We see these circulated and forwarded because so many average Americans feel their federal government is out-of-control, out-of-touch, and placing itself above the people it is supposed to serve. And that underlying concern is warranted.
We see it with an Administration attempting to bypass Congress and the Constitutional process for changing the laws of the land. We see it with an EPA that threatens our national economy with shackling new regulations to drive American jobs overseas, and increase our dependence on foreign oil. We see it with the previous two sessions of Congress spending hundreds of billions in taxpayer money to bail out major banks and corporations, while the mountain of national debt the bailouts created not only is blocking immediate job growth but threatens our nation's economic future for generations to come.
The stories are false. The call to action is not. We need to make a dramatic change in the way we govern this country, one which allows Americans to once again trust their government to serve the needs and respect the will of the majority.