I am sure that ridiculously false information, conspiracy theories amplified in the face of facts that demolish them and outright lies that get repeated ad nauseam have been facts of life for millenniums. But these universals have become more potent and more long-lasting in the Internet age. And one set of myths that keep stubbornly resurrecting themselves on the Web are about Congress.
I have largely ignored or dismissed a viral email that has been popping up for months now. But when it was sent to me by a former professor of mine — a really smart and sophisticated guy now retired in the San Diego area — it made me realize how much of a problem we have when something that sounds plausible on the surface but is flat-out false gets into the mainstream.
Here is the gist of the viral email, with the most damaging assertions in italics:
"No one has been able to explain to me why young men and women serve in the U.S. Military for 20 years, risking their lives protecting freedom, and only get 50% of their pay. While politicians hold their political positions in the safe confines of the capital, protected by these same men and women, and receive full pay retirement after serving one term.
"Monday on Fox news they learned that the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans. ...
"For too long we have been too complacent about the workings of Congress. Many citizens had no idea that members of Congress could retire with the same pay after only one term, that they specifically exempted themselves from many of the laws they have passed (such as being exempt from any fear of prosecution for sexual harassment) while ordinary citizens must live under those laws. The latest is to exempt themselves from the Healthcare Reform ... in all of its forms."
Here are some actual facts. On pensions, from a CRS report:
"Congressional pensions, like those of other federal employees, are financed through a combination of employee and employer contributions. … Members of Congress are eligible for a pension at age 62 if they have completed at least five years of service. Members are eligible for a pension at age 50 if they have completed 20 years of service, or at any age after completing 25 years of service. The amount of the pension depends on years of service and the average of the highest three years of salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.
"As of October 1, 2006, 413 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service. Of this number, 290 had retired under [the Civil Service Retirement System] and were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. A total of 123 Members had retired with service under both CSRS and [the Federal Employees Retirement System] or with service under FERS only. Their average annual pension was $35,952 in 2006."
On the Fox News assertion about student loans, this from factcheck.org (responding to dozens of inquiries):
"Are members of Congress exempt from repaying student loans?
"Are members' families exempt from having to pay back student loans?
"Are children of members of Congress exempted from repaying their student loans?
"Do congressional staffers have to pay back their student loans?
"The answers are: no, no, no and yes — although some full-time congressional staffers participate in a student loan repayment program that helps pay back a portion of student loans. No more than $60,000 in the House and $40,000 in the Senate can be forgiven and only if the employee stays on the job for several years."
On the assertion that Members of Congress are exempt from the provisions of the Affordable Care Act: also false. Members of Congress are subject under the health care reform law to the same mandate that others are to purchase insurance, and their plans must have the same minimum standards of benefits that other insurance plans will have to meet. Members of Congress currently have not a gold-plated free plan but the same insurance options that most other federal employees have, and they do not have it provided for free. They have a generous subsidy for their premiums, but no more generous (and compared to many businesses or professions less generous) than standard employer-provided subsidies throughout the country.
To most Americans, Members of Congress live pretty lush lives, including all those facilities like a posh dining room, a beauty salon and a spa in the Capitol (more exaggerations). They do make more money than most other Americans, especially during a time of high unemployment, and certainly don't live like paupers. The pensions are generous — especially the cost of living adjustments. But for most lawmakers, the lifestyle is anything but luxurious, and the jobs are brutal, from the constant travel to the insane fundraising pressures.
It is not surprising that, in tough times, Americans would be inclined to believe the absolute worst about their elected officials — especially when some of them cynically exploit voters' darker instincts by showboating through sleeping on cots or couches in their offices. But at least let the criticism be fair and based on facts instead of persistent urban legends. Any Member who wants to make copies of this column and distribute it at town meetings or other places when the email pseudo-facts are raised may feel free to do so.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI