Friday, March 18, 2011

Top Republican defends government pensions

The top Republican in question is the ultraconservative Rep. Steve King (R-IA) and the pension is, predictably, his own. In an interview on C-SPAN, King said non-Congressional government employees could collect a good pension, but played down Congressional pensions as "not that great" and "slim pickin's, indeed." Let's look at the numbers.

If King were to retire at the end of this term, he would be entitled to a pension of $29,580 per year, based on his ten years of service. Congress has a 401k program that deducts a mere 1.4% from his paycheck. His Social Security benefits would be somewhere around $28,000 per year. He would be entitled to use the taxpayer funded healthcare system Medicare for his health needs. He is also entitled to a pension for his years in the Iowa state house. All of these government retirement programs, except the 401k, get cost of living increases. The total of all his government retirement benefits will be over $60,000 per year. Very few retirees have an income like that.

Right off the bat, King engages in a bait-and-switch over those numbers. He states that a lifetime civil servant would get a bigger pension than a congressperson who only stayed in the system for ten years. Okay, that's true enough. It's also true that a lifetime civil servant would get a bigger pension than another civil servant who only stayed in the system for ten years. Also, a member of congress who spent their life in Washington would get a bigger pension than a congressperson who only stayed in the system for ten years. It's a "so what" observation that has nothing to do with whether or not his pension is generous or not.

Hidden behind that smokescreen and his folksy ways is the simple fact that his pension will be much better than that of the average civil servant. Three numbers are plugged into the formula to calculate a federal pension. The first, is the average of the worker's three highest paid years, usually the last three years they worked. King makes $174,000 per year, which is far more than the vast majority of civil servants will ever make. The second number is the number of years of government service, the subject of King's previously mentioned irrelevance. The third number is the most important. The pension of an average civil servant is 1.1% of the highest three year average multiplied by their number of years in government employ. However, for members of congress and their staffs, the multiplier is 1.7%. That is to say, Steve King will get a pension 55% larger than that of any other civil servant who made the same pay and worked the same number of years.

Rep. Steve King wants us to think his pension is just fine because it's "slim pickin's, indeed." Most government employees would love to have his slim pickin's and most of the rest of us can only dream of it. Republican lawmakers all over the country are trying to tell us that over paid public employees with their living salary pensions are cause of all our woes. They divide the working class and tell non-government employees that they need to drag other workers down to a lowest common denominator. When it's their own benefits being questioned, they story is "move along, nothing to look at here."

For those who want to know exactly what King said, here is the video and my transcription.

HOST: Here’s a story in today’s Washington post, coming to us from the McClatchy Tribune Services, with pension plans under attack, congress’s own benefits are hefty, lawmakers can retire with generous packages with less buy-in.

KING: Um. The response for that I guess is what you’re wondering. Um, you know, the packages we have today are not the packages that many people think we have. And I believe it’s five years to be vested in a retirement plan at all. The federal employees who make a career out of this their--their plan is--is one that accumulates over their working career of their lifetime, and the average time here in congress is, as I recall, I have to go back to check this, the fact today, is about 10.8 years--time in Congress. The pension plans for an average member of Congress aren't that great. The healthcare plan here--we contribute to that in the same fashion as other federal employees. There's still the virus of the rumor going on since the eighties that says members don't contribute to Social Security. Well, we do. We have done so since the eighties and we're on the same plan here as the other federal employees. So, it's not that great and if I were going to retire off of what’s here--and this is by the beginning of my ninth year--it would be a pretty slim pickin's, indeed...

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