EDITORIAL: Make congressional pensions passe

Lawmakers should lead reform by closing their own retirement plans

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A public-pension crisis is looming, and something must be done. Federal, state and local government employees enjoy cushy retirements compared to the rest of Americans - all at taxpayer expense. Rank-and-file members in the House of Representatives want to see reform, and they’re starting with their own pensions.

Freshman Rep. Ben Quayle is giving up his benefits so he can advocate for change. “I opted out of my pension because I think it’s hypocritical for us to go after the federal pension system if we’re not going to do it ourselves,” the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

“Look at the private sector - most don’t have pensions anymore. And you have the federal workforce who already has 401(k) plus 5 percent matching,” he said. The average private employer contributes just 3 percent to a retirement plan and doesn’t provide a pension.

To make this point, a handful have opted out of the congressional program, which paid out an average of $40,140 to each retired member in 2009. Freshman Rep. Tim Griffin ran for Congress on a pledge to end this defined-benefit perk in order to tackle the broader problem of unfunded mandates.

“We can’t reform mandatory spending in this area until we first deal with ours,” the Arkansas Republican told The Washington Times. “I tell my colleagues, ‘Let’s get the moral high ground and demonstrate that we want to make changes to our pension, and then we can deal with the big problems.’ “

Mr. Griffin’s legislation, introduced last month, would end the pension plan for newly elected members or those with less than five years’ service. Anyone in the current plan would have to opt back into it within 90 days. Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican, introduced tougher legislation in September that would close the program for current or future members while honoring benefits promised before the bill takes effect. It has the support of Citizens Against Government Waste, the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Tax Reform.

Closing down congressional pensions would only result in savings measured in the tens of millions. The real money is in the hundreds of billions we will owe to the rest of the federal bureaucracy. If Washington does something now, it can avoid making draconian changes that penalize existing retirees.

“The Europeans waited so long that they are impacting people who depend on their pensions,” Mr. Griffin said. “We are still early enough to fix it for the next generation.” A few states have started scaling back their programs, while others have come hat in hand for billion-dollar federal bailouts.

Big labor’s bosses will fight any effort to align public-sector union benefits with what the rest of Americans receive. Federal bureaucrats have nothing to complain about. They earn about 20 percent more than their private-sector counterparts, get a fancy health care plan and enjoy a generous 401(k). They don’t need a pricey pension on top of all that. The days of a luxurious retirement on the taxpayer dime are gone.

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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