While campaigning on calls to reduce government spending, three of the five Republican presidential candidates are receiving or will be eligible to draw taxpayer-financed pensions. So would a fourth if he hadn’t opted out of the plan.
Newt Gingrich, 68, gets a gross annual federal pension of more than $100,000, according to a report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management released through the Freedom of Information Act.
He’s not alone; more than 350 former U.S. lawmakers and congressional staff top $100,000 a year, and many more get lower pensions.
“If there’s one thing that can present a PR problem for a self-identified fiscal conservative, it’s the pay and perks that such a person can earn in elective office,” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president at the National Taxpayers’ Union, an Alexandria, Virginia-based group that advocates for lower taxes.
Rick Perry, 61, is getting a Texas state pension of more than $92,000 a year for past jobs even as he draws a taxpayer salary as governor. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, 53, will be eligible for a reduced pension at age 56 or a full one at 62. Santorum, who served for four years in the House and 12 in the Senate, would likely be eligible for an annual pension of almost $40,000, Sepp estimated.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, 64, isn’t eligible for a state pension, having served only four years in his post and declining to take a salary. Representative Ron Paul, 76, has refused to participate in the federal system during his almost 22 years representing Texas in Congress.
‘It is Immoral’
“It is immoral that someone spend so much time in Congress that they even should think about getting retirement benefits,” Paul said in a 1997 release on his House website. “To expect those benefits to be paid by taxpayers at rates no citizen can ever hope to actually earn is even more unreasonable.”
Gingrich opposed the pension system as too lavish when he first entered Congress and then decided to participate in 1989, according to a 1995 New York Times story. The payments are set by years of participation and salary levels, and the system was revised in 1987.
Gingrich, who served in the House from 1979 to 1999, including four years as speaker, was receiving $8,350 a month as of Sept. 29, according to the OPM report. The net payout varies, depending on deductions for items such as health care. In Gingrich’s case, his net payment was $4,272.20 a month as of Sept. 29, according to the report.
Gingrich’s campaign spokesman, R.C. Hammond, didn’t respond to a request to confirm the pension or say why Gingrich changed his mind about entering the system.
Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner didn’t respond to e-mail and phone messages. Santorum’s campaign also didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Gingrich in the past has taken aim at what he calls excessive federal salaries, suggesting during a November 2010 speech that postal workers could be paid a third of what they earn now. He also said states should be able to declare bankruptcy to get out from under pension obligations.
Congress should create a venue for bankruptcy so, instead of seeking federal aid, states will be told to “sit down with all your government employee unions and look at their health plans and their pension plans,” Gingrich said during the speech at the Institute for Policy Innovation. “And frankly if they don’t want to change, our recommendation is you go into bankruptcy court and let the bankruptcy judge change it.”
Hammond suggested the former Georgia lawmaker’s pension doesn’t contradict his drive to cut government spending.
“Hey, didn’t Newt balance the federal budget four times?” Hammond said in an e-mail.
If a member of Congress were elected president, he or she couldn’t collect a federal pension while in office, Sepp said. After retiring as president, both pensions would be available simultaneously.
Last year, Congress fully funded the U.S. General Services Administration’s presidential pension request at $217,000 for the last two presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. It also funded a request of $205,000 for the two other living ex-presidents, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, according to documents released by the administration.
The original argument for the congressional pension system for lawmakers was that it would make them more independent and encourage turnover, Sepp said. That hasn’t happened, he said.
“It is over-generous and has outgrown virtually all of its justifications,” because members don’t need the safety net, he said. “Congressional service is definitely a way to spin straw into gold. Even if you were modestly skilled in office you can likely land into a nice career outside of it.”