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Meltdown Retirement Blow Is Softer for Lawmakers
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by Erica Werner
Monday, October 27, 2008
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Inside Washington: Lawmakers' retirement plans riding out the storm better than others

Along with the rest of America, Rep. George Miller has watched the value of his retirement investments plummet in recent weeks.

"I've lost 30 percent like everybody else. This hits home with the Miller family, too," the California Democrat said in a recent interview.

But the blow is softer for members of Congress than for most. Although lawmakers have lost value in their thrift savings plans -- the government's version of a 401(k) -- they are also offered a defined-benefit pension plan backed by the U.S. Treasury and largely insulated from Wall Street fluctuations.

That puts Miller and the other lawmakers into an increasingly privileged category -- workers with guaranteed retirement benefits that aren't subject to the vicissitudes of the financial markets.

Market meltdown or no, if Miller, 63, were to retire at the end of this year he'd take with him an annual pension of about $122,000, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group in Arlington, Va. On top of that he could tap whatever remains in his 401(k)-like savings plan.

Lawmakers' retirement benefits start earlier and accrue faster than in plans offered to other federal workers, or by the average private company. Lawmakers also get cost-of-living increases, increasingly rare in the private sector.

Only 5 percent of private sector workers have defined benefit pension plans, in which the employer pays into an account and promises them benefits based on years of service, salary levels and other factors. That's down from 1980, when 60 percent of workers had such plans, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Increasingly, employers are putting the responsibility for retirement -- and the risk -- onto workers themselves by switching to investment plans like 401(k)s. About 30 percent of workers have 401(k)s, in which employees contribute to their own accounts, often with employers matching a small percentage of contributions, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Thirteen percent have both defined-benefit pensions and 401(k)s. The remaining workers don't have retirement coverage from their employer, according to the institute.

Despite the financial crisis -- and the fact lawmakers' retirement benefits are out of step with most ordinary Americans -- Congress has made no effort to revisit its unusually sweet retirement deal.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., who has declined participation in either the congressional pension or thrift savings plan, said his efforts to scale them back have not been welcomed.

Chart shows breakdown of retirement plans in the private sector

"It would certainly be a timely gesture at this juncture," said Coble. "It certainly appears to be a different standard and I can see how people on the outside of that standard might resent it."

The generous retirement arrangement for members of Congress is meant to respond to the job insecurity that comes with elected office, according to Barbara Bovbjerg, director of education, work force and income security issues at the Government Accountability Office.

Members elected before 1984, like Miller, get a better deal on their pensions than do those elected since, because the rules changed that year to bring lawmakers into the Social Security system as well.

But any member with five years of service is eligible for full pension benefits at 62 -- though Social Security benefits conform with those of other workers, with early retirement bringing reduced benefits. Lawmakers with 20 years in office can get full pension benefits at 50, younger than most workers.

"The government plans are certainly very rich even if you compare them to the pension plans in corporate America," said Robyn Credico, national director of defined contribution consulting at Watson Wyatt, an employee benefits consulting firm.

"I certainly believe it affects policy," Credico said, suggesting that members of Congress don't experience the harsher reality of ordinary workers' retirement plans. "If you're not impacted yourself it's very easy to make different rules."

Indeed, Congress has in recent years promoted the dramatic movement in corporate America away from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k)s with policies encouraging automatic enrollment and raising contribution limits. Under 401(k) plans employees contribute to their own investment accounts and assume the risks and rewards that go with them. Lately, with the crisis on Wall Street and across the globe, it's been more risk than reward.

Earlier this month, Miller's House Education and Labor Committee found that Americans' retirement plans -- pension plans and 401(k)s included -- have lost as much as $2 trillion in the past 15 months -- about 20 percent of their value. At a committee hearing Wednesday in San Francisco, Miller cited new research suggesting that the losses might be as much as double that.

And although private sector employees with defined benefit pensions are guaranteed their pensions even if the value of the plan drops, employers may make up for the extra cost in other ways, like layoffs, cutting other benefits or even freezing the pension or eliminating it, experts say.

That risk was underscored Wednesday at Miller's hearing in San Francisco, where he announced that the federal agency charged with backstopping pension benefits for 44 million Americans has lost at least $3 billion in stock investments during the last fiscal year on assets of $68 billion, and invested a significant portion of its funds in mortgage-backed securities. The agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., insures approximately 30,000 defined benefit pension plans. It does not insure 401(k) plans.
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