By Bill Thompson
U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho has filed his first bill, seeking to keep any of his colleagues convicted of a crime from profiting from their congressional service.
The Gainesville Republican has offered the Trust Returned to the United States Taxpayer (TRUST) Act.
The measure would prohibit members of Congress who are convicted of any felony while in office from collecting the taxpayer-funded portion of their pension.
In an interview Wednesday, Yoho noted that military personnel can forfeit their benefits if they receive a dishonorable discharge.
"If that can happen to the guy who's willing to lay his life on the line for our country, it should apply to members of Congress," Yoho said.
The freshman lawmaker, whose district includes much of western Marion County, said Congress took a much-needed first step to restoring the public's view of its integrity last year by passing the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act.
The STOCK Act forbids lawmakers and other federal employees from profiting from insider trading by using information they gather in the course of their duties for stock market trades.
Yoho sees his bill as another way to help Congress recover some of its lost respectability with the public.
"We're trying to send a message to the American people that we are going to be held accountable," Yoho said.
Lawmakers become vested in the federal pension plan after five years of service.
Yoho said his bill, if it passes, will not affect the portion of pensions funded by the lawmakers themselves.
Nor would it apply to legislators who have left office for whatever reason.
But Yoho's bill would expand the universe of crimes for which members of Congress could forfeit their retirement benefits.
According to a Congressional Research Service report released in December, under the 1954 Hiss Act lawmakers and other federal employees now only forfeit their pension benefits if they are convicted of federal charges of espionage, treason, or other crimes related to national security.
Additionally, the report stated, provisions of both the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 and the STOCK Act can deny lawmakers retirement income if convicted of corruption charges, election crimes, or misconduct in office.
Those statutes do so by stripping the convicted legislators of the "creditable service" time they built up while in office, which helps determine the amount of their pensions.
Yoho said his bill will have bipartisan support, based on talks he has had with the House Republican leadership and top Democrats.
The idea should also win support from watchdog groups.
The National Taxpayers Union, for instance, has long advocated that felons in Congress lose the retirement benefits amassed over their careers.
The group has reported that roughly 20 former lawmakers convicted of crimes since 1980 still retained their pensions, which collectively cost taxpayers about $836,000 a year.
That list includes notables who went to prison within the past decade like: Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican convicted of taking bribes from clients of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff; Republican Duke Cunningham of California, convicted of taking kickbacks from defense contractors; and Ohio Democrat Jim Traficant, convicted of taking bribes, racketeering and tax evasion.
More recently, it's been debated as to whether former Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, who pleaded guilty to misusing campaign contributions, will keep his pension.