They may be gone from elected office, but more than a dozen former members of Congress from Illinois are still drawing public-sector paychecks – through taxpayer-subsidized pensions worth as much as $226,000 a year, based on estimates.
|Retired U.S. House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) / Official portrait|
That top pension amount goes to retired U.S. House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), who started his career in Washington in 1949 as a congressional staffer, then served in Congress for 38 years, representing the Peoria area until 1995. Michel is 91 and lives in Washington, D.C.
Ray LaHood, a former congressional staffer, congressman and U.S. transportation secretary under President Obama, is drawing the next biggest federal pension from Illinois, at an estimated $126,000 a year.
Retired U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.) is third at an estimated $95,000 a year.
In Illinois, much has been said in recent years about generous – sometimes overly generous – state and local pensions, the inability of government to adequately fund retirement benefits for public employees and the perilous financial situation local public agencies now find themselves in as a result of all this.
|Former congressional staffer, congressman and U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood / Official portrait|
The Better Government Association decided to look at the federal government – the often-ignored federal pension system, as well as various taxpayer-subsidized payments to current and former members of the Illinois congressional delegation, and other high-ranking federal officials from Illinois.
Federal pension officials refused to provide actual pensions for individuals, so the BGA computed estimated pension payouts through interviews, and publicly available formulas and salaries.
FEDERAL PENSIONS – Existing Payouts
Estimates of what retired (or recently deceased) members of Congress from Illinois have been drawing in federal pension benefits.
* According to Bloomberg News, updated by the BGA. The $226,000 figure is the highest Michel could be drawing. BGA calculations found he’s drawing a minimum of $183,000 a year.
** Glenn Poshard is also drawing three local government pensions putting his entire taxpayer-subsidized retirement earnings at more than $200,000.
NOTE: Numbers are current as of 2014, the year Crane and Dixon died. Estimates are based on salaries, interviews and pension formulas published on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s web site, and contained in federal reports. Some retired federal officials did not respond to the BGA’s request for information on their pension, or confirmation of the BGA’s estimates. Pensions were calculated as though they were taken at age 62, or if retirement took place later, at the actual date of retirement. The figures are for federal pensions only; some officials may collect other government pensions. Federal government service generally does not impact state and local pensions, nor does state or local government service impact federal pensions. State and local pensions in Illinois are funded through a combination of employee contributions, pension fund investments and taxpayers. Federal pensions are funded by employees and taxpayers. For those members of Congress who took office before 1984, pensions may be reduced by the portion of their Social Security payment earned while in Congress.
SOURCE: Better Government Association
The BGA found lucrative pension payouts not only exist at the federal level, but some federal officials draw – or stand to draw – more than one source of income from taxpayers.
More specifically, the BGA examination shows:
- Until recently, there were five former members of Congress from Illinois collecting six-figure federal pensions, including retired U.S. Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), whose pension was an estimated $142,000 a year at the time he died in November.
- U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) stands to take home a $42,000-a-year federal pension down the road. Meanwhile, she collects $174,000 in salary as a member of the U.S. House and collected another $26,290 in state pension payouts in 2014, for her time in the Illinois General Assembly.
- While Schakowsky is the only current member of the Illinois delegation to “double dip” in this manner, eight former Illinois members of Congress have done the same in recent years, with former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris collecting a state pension of more than $120,000 a year at the same time he served as a U.S. senator.
- When he leaves office, Obama will receive a presidential pension equal to what Cabinet members are paid, currently $203,700 a year. He does not qualify for a pension from the U.S. Senate since he was only there four years. However, at age 62 he’ll be eligible for an $18,182 annual Illinois pension from his time in the state Legislature.
- Top Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was collecting a $35,659-a-year pension in 2014 from the CTA for her nearly eight years as the part-time transit board chairwoman, atop her $172,200 White House salary. She qualifies for a yearly federal pension of at least $10,300 down the road.
Though collecting a pension and salary at the same time, or “double-dipping,” is legal, good-government advocates generally frown on the practice because of the impact on taxpayers, and because pensions are intended to provide retirement security for those no longer working, not pad the paychecks of the employed.
|Obama aide Valerie Jarrett / Official portrait|
Jarrett started collecting her CTA pension in December 2006, a month after turning 50, which highlights another criticism with some state and local pensions: They start paying out too soon.
Former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and ex-U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) also began collecting state pensions relatively young – when they turned 55 and were still in Congress. Both previously served in the General Assembly, which has the most generous formula of any Illinois pension system. Hastert’s state pensions (aside from serving as a legislator, he’s a former public high school teacher) were $42,878 a year combined in 2014, while Johnson’s state pension was $77,080. They also are now drawing federal pensions estimated at $72,000 a year for Hastert and $32,000 a year for Johnson.
Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, which has taken fiscally conservative positions in testimony before Congress, says of all this: “The state and local retirement systems are so generous that members of Congress can draw these pensions before they are 60 or 65. . . . What you really need to do is reform those state and local systems so there is a rational retirement age.”
A reform measure that was signed into law in 2013 by now-former Gov. Pat Quinn would raise the retirement age in some Illinois pension plans, including the General Assembly’s, but the initiative is now tied up in the courts, so it’s not in effect. That proposed change, among others, was aimed at chipping away at the $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that threaten to saddle generations of Illinois residents with tax debt.
Compared to Illinois, the federal pension system is in good financial condition and pays decent – but less generous – benefits.
|Retired U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.) / Official portrait|
Like Illinois pension systems, the federal pension system once had an unfunded liability that kept rising. But in the mid-1980s Congress radically changed things, requiring federal workers to contribute to Social Security, and lowering pension benefits for people who started in 1984 or later. Also introduced was a 401k-type savings plan funded by contributions from workers, with up to 5 percent matched by taxpayers.
So 1984 became the dividing line between larger federal pensions and more modest payouts.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), 70, entered Congress in 1983 and therefore will receive his pension under the more lucrative old system. Durbin, who won re-election last year, would have been entitled to as much as $125,000 if he had left the Senate at the end of 2014, based on his 32 years in Congress.
But pensions for Durbin and others elected before 1984 can be reduced by the portion of their Social Security payments earned while in Congress.
FEDERAL PENSIONS – Future Payouts
Estimates of what current and former federal officials from Illinois stand to draw in federal retirement benefits down the road.
* Includes Mark Kirk’s time in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, only. Kirk also worked as a congressional staffer. Kirk may stand to draw a military pension for his time in the U.S. Navy.
** Did not answer BGA questions about whether they are eligible for larger pensions due to previous federal employment.
NOTE: Estimates are based on pension formulas published on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s web site, and contained in federal reports. Some federal officials did not respond to the BGA’s request for information on their pension, or confirmation of the BGA’s estimates. The pensions are calculated to reflect the pension due at age 62, using the current number of years of service and salaries. Jackson’s potential pension is listed here, though his recent corruption conviction may make him ineligible. All figures are for federal pensions only; some officials may collect other government pensions. Federal government service generally does not impact state and local pensions, nor does state or local government service impact federal pensions. State and local pensions in Illinois are funded through a combination of employee contributions, pension fund investments and taxpayers. Federal pensions are funded by employees and taxpayers. For Durbin, because he took office before 1984, pension payouts may be reduced by the portion of his Social Security payment earned while in Congress.
SOURCE: Better Government Association
Either way, there’s one major shortcoming with the federal pension system: A lack of transparency. State and local government agencies in Illinois consider pension payments to be public record, and release information upon request. Federal pensions, however, are shrouded in secrecy, with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management refusing to release detailed data to the public, citing privacy.
The BGA was able to estimate pension benefits for many elected and high federal government officials using publicly available formulas and salaries.
Meanwhile, the BGA encountered another transparency issue: Unlike Durbin, many current and former federal officials from Illinois wouldn’t answer questions, including Johnson, who said, “I’m retired. I’m enjoying being a grandfather. I’m not going to go any further.”
Others couldn’t be reached.
Based on pension data Bloomberg News published in 2012, citing information obtained from federal officials, Michel’s pension could be as high now as $226,000 a year, taking into account cost-of-living adjustments. BGA calculations using available data found Michel’s yearly estimated pension is at least $183,000 a year.
Michel did not want to discuss the amount he receives as a pension but said, “I was in federal service for 50 years . . . I have lived up to the rules.”
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sandy Bergo, Chuck Neubauer and Patrick Rehkamp. They can be reached at email@example.com or at (312) 427-8330.