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  • Senator Lugar response to my query

    Posted on January 13th, 2011 cwmoore No comments

    Subject:  Term Limits and Salary

    Dear Mr. Moore:

    Thank you for contacting me.  I appreciate this opportunity to respond and noted your comments concerning congressional pay, retirement benefits, and term limits, among other issues.

    Congress is charged with making final decisions regarding its pay by Article I; Section 6 of the Constitution.  I have long believed that the system would be improved if an external commission were making decisions, or at least recommendations, on congressional compensation including pay, pension and benefits.

    Under law, virtually all government beneficiaries, retirees, and workers receive an automatic annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA).  This includes Social Security recipients, retired federal workers, retired military, and current federal workers.  In 1989, Congress made a bipartisan decision to include itself in this COLA process.  It simultaneously imposed stricter limits on outside earned income and banned members from accepting so-called “honoraria” — payments from groups for speeches or articles.  This reform package, which was supported by Common Cause and some other government watchdog groups, was intended to prevent corruption and reduce the politicization of congressional salaries.  Members would get an automatic COLA like all other federal workers, but there would be far less opportunity for potentially corrupting outside earned income or ad hoc pay raises.

    Congress recently enacted legislation which blocks the automatic COLA for Members of Congress from going into effect for 2010.

    The conundrum facing congressional COLA is clearly two-fold.  On the one hand, it is important, from a recruitment standpoint, to maintain salary parity with the private and public sectors.  I have been involved in the recruitment of candidates for many years, and I can attest that a large pay discrepancy between the private sector and public service will only encourage two types of candidates: millionaires who want to dabble in politics and lifetime politicians who have not made a living in any other way.  On the other hand, compensation that is perceived as too generous risks the appearance of special privilege and fails to set the proper example of fiscal responsibility.

    Through a commission or other means, we must thoughtfully balance the important goal of frugality with the need to attract the best possible candidates and a broad spectrum of professions to congressional service.

    Furthermore, since 1984, all members of Congress have been required to participate in the Social Security system and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.  Congressional participation in Social Security was mandated in 1983, when Congress passed a bipartisan bill restructuring Social Security and extending the program’s solvency.  I voted in favor of that bill.

    It is often erroneously said that members of Congress pay nothing toward their own retirement.  In fact, members of Congress pay more of their salaries into their retirement than other federal workers.  Members of Congress in the pre-1984 CSRS retirement system pay 8 percent of their gross salary into the pension plan.  On top of that, they pay Social Security taxes.  Other federal workers who are in CSRS pay 7 percent of their gross salary into the pension plan.  But unlike members of Congress, they are exempt from Social Security.  Members of Congress who are covered by the post-1984 FERS retirement system pay 1.3 percent of their gross salary into the plan, plus Social Security taxes.  Other federal workers pay 0.8 percent of their gross salary into FERS, plus Social Security taxes.

    Pensions vary greatly depending on time of service and contributions.  Obviously, those members still covered by the older CSRS system who paid 8 percent of their salary into their retirement receive more than members who have paid 1.3 percent per year in the post-1984 FERS retirement system.

    Knowing your interest in fiscal discipline, I am pleased to report that I have returned more than $5 million in unspent office funds during the course of my career.  I believe that it is important to run an efficient office and to make good use of taxpayer dollars.

    On a final topic, I have not been a supporter of term limit proposals because I believe they would limit the choices of voters, expand the influence of unelected bureaucrats and lobbyists, and deprive Congress of an element of historical experience that is important in current policy debates.

    Term limits would place a restriction on the right of individual American voters to choose whomever they wish to serve in Congress.  The only limits the Framers of the Constitution placed on that choice were age and citizenship.  Not only would term limits tamper with the Constitution, they would imply that the American voter is incapable of telling the difference between a bad representative and a good one.  I believe that we should trust the judgments made by the American people when they go to the polls to vote.

    I also believe that term limits would have unintended side effects that could result in a less accountable government.  Those members with the least experience tend to be the ones who are most dependent on advice and information regarding the legislative process.  To the degree that term limits reduce experience in Congress, they would enhance the relative influence of those people who provide such advice and information: congressional staff, executive branch bureaucrats, and lobbyists who are in place in Washington in unelected and often permanent positions.  I do not think advocates of term limits are seeking this outcome, but this would be one likely result of term limits.

    Further, I believe there is value in having some members who served in government during notable events of our recent history.  Often such events are relevant to the problems before us.

    Thank you, again, for contacting me.

    Sincerely,

    Richard G. Lugar
    United States Senator

    RGL/cga

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