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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.
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:
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.
on Fox news they learned that the staffers of Congress family members are
exempt from having to pay back student loans. …
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
some actual facts. On pensions, from a CRS report:
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.
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
On the Fox
News assertion about student loans, this from factcheck.org (responding to
dozens of inquiries):
members of Congress exempt from repaying student loans?
members’ families exempt from having to pay back student loans?
children of members of Congress exempted from repaying their student loans?
congressional staffers have to pay back their student loans?
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
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.
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
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