Congress's six-figure benefits add to $674 billion pension gap
WASHINGTON -- Almost 15,000 federal retirees, including former leaders of Congress, a university president and a banker, are receiving six-figure pensions from a system that faces a $674.2 billion shortfall.
About one of every 125 retired federal civilian workers collects more than $100,000 in benefits annually. They include physicians, postal workers and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, according to data obtained by Bloomberg News under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
"We don't want to bash federal employees," said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a Washington- based research organization. "Still, when you have today's economy, public sector jobs look better and better. And there are some pensions that make you question the system as a whole."
About half of all private-sector workers have no retirement plan other than Social Security, according to figures from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that studies pensions. About 16 percent are in plans similar to the federal system, which guarantees payouts based on workers' earnings. Some private employers offer so-called defined-contribution plans, including 401(k) plans, in which benefits depend on employees' contributions and how they're invested.
The federal retirement system has emerged as a cost-cutting target as the government faces a budget deficit exceeding $1 trillion. A 2010 Congressional Research Service study reported that U.S. government pension programs had a shortfall of $674.2 billion, mostly due to insufficient funding for workers hired before 1984.
The Treasury pays about $4.9 billion every month for about 1.8 million retirees, an average of $31,633 annually. Federal employees contribute $1 of every $14 toward retirement, according to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan panel created by President Barack Obama.
Public employees at the state and local levels already have faced moves to cut future benefits, as officials seek to address a cumulative pension gap that exceeds $4 trillion. Dallas Salisbury, president of the benefits institute, said in an interview that federal pensions might be "richer than we can now afford. Something's going to have to give."
The number of current federal employees eligible to retire and collect a pension will grow to 956,613 by the end of the 2016 budget year, a 35 percent increase from the 707,750 who could have retired at the end of September, according to a 2008 study by the Office of Personnel Management.
Retirees in the database that OPM released to Bloomberg News had careers that lasted an average of roughly 27 years. The database is dated Sept. 29, 2011, and doesn't contain the names of employees' survivors who receive benefits. The Congressional Budget Office said in a report last March that in 2010, the U.S. government paid $69 billion to 2.5 million civilian retirees and their survivors, and $51 billion to 2.2 million military retirees and their survivors.
Retired physicians and politicians ranked among those collecting the largest benefits. The chance of getting a six- figure pension was best at the Securities and Exchange Commission, where 9.3 percent of retirees collect at least $100,000 annually.
Irving K. Jordan Jr., former president of Gallaudet University in Washington, led the list at $375,900. Gallaudet gets about $120 million federal funding each year. Jordan didn't return a request for comment left with the university president's office.
Maxey D. Love Jr., of Columbia, S.c., is second on the list at $322,272 a year. For years, he was president of a farm credit bank he first joined as a college student, he said. His salary eventually topped $300,000 a year.
"I'm a fortunate person to have been at the right place at the right time," said Love, 78. Shortly after he was hired, the chance for workers at farm credit banks to stay in the federal pension system ended, he said.
Because of cost of living adjustments, at least 48,500 retirees are making more now than they did on the federal payroll. For example, former congressman Robert Michel, 88, a Republican from Illinois, is collecting $211,452, fourth on the list and more than any other employee of the congressional branch. The average of his three highest annual salaries was $146,875. He retired in 1994 as House minority leader with 49 years of federal service and is now a senior adviser in Washington to Hogan Lovells, a law firm.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Michel said in an interview when told of his ranking. "I didn't realize it was up there."
Former lawmakers, including some who have become lobbyists or strategic consultants, also received six-figure pensions, according to the OPM database. They include former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt ($106,512 for 28 years of work as a Missouri Democratic congressman); former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle ($105,804 for 33 years as a South Dakota Democratic lawmaker); former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole ($144,432 for 40 years as a Kansas Republican lawmaker); and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott ($110,352 after 39 years as a Republican lawmaker from Mississippi). Calls to the offices of Gephardt, Daschle, Dole and Lott weren't returned.
Edward J. Derwinski had the highest pension of any former cabinet official, collecting $193,368 annually after more than 36 years of federal work that included 24 years as an Illinois congressman before he became the first secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Derwinski, 85, died Sunday.
The list of former federal employees collecting more than six figures also includes former Vice President Dick Cheney ($125,976 for 28 years of work, including as a Wyoming congressman, White House chief of staff, and defense secretary). Cheney didn't respond to a message requesting comment.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, receives a pension of $100,200 after 20 years in Congress, according to the data. He has argued as a Republican presidential candidate that government employees ought to shoulder more of the burden for planning their retirements. His campaign spokesman, R.C. Hammond, didn't respond to a request for comment.
The federal retirement system changed in 1986 to bring federal workers hired after 1984 into the Social Security system and make other changes, including offering a thrift savings plan that resembles a 401(k). The earliest a federal worker can retire with a full pension is at 55, with 30 years of service.
The amount of a federal retiree's pensions is generally based on his or her three highest-paying years; the commission on fiscal responsibility has recommended switching that to five years as part of a plan to trim benefit costs by as much as $70 billion over 10 years.
"The average American would probably be delighted to trade plans," said Joshua D. Rauh, a finance professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School.
The federal pension shortfall is reflected in other levels of government, such as the California Public Employees' Retirement System (Calpers), the nation's largest. Calpers pays 536,234 retired state workers an average annual pension of $27,984. California employees contribute between 5 and 11 percent of their salary to retirement.
Like the federal program, California pensions are based on the top three highest-paying years. State employees with more than 25 years of service may base their pension on the single highest year of pay. The California fund currently faces a $51.2 billion shortfall.
"Retirees and employees are going to take some kind of hit," Dave Snell, head of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association's retirement benefits service department, said in a telephone interview. "Congress is honing its blade."