When are Members of Congress considered vested and eligible to receive a pension? And how much is that pension? Monticello, Arkansas

Members who have participated in the congressional pension system are vested after 5 years of service. A full pension is available to Members 62 years of age with 5 years of service; 50 years or older with 20 years of service; or 25 years of service at any age. A reduced pension is available depending upon which of several different age/service options is chosen. If Members leave Congress before reaching retirement age, they may leave their contributions behind and receive a deferred pension later.

How much they receive depends on a complicated formula based on when they joined Congress, how old they are at the time of retirement, how many years of service they had at the time of retirement (including previous military or other federal service), their salary, and which pension option they chose when they enrolled. In any case, a Member's pension amount may not exceed 80% of his/her salary upon retirement.

Since January 1, 1984, all Members of Congress also participate in the Social Security system and are required to pay Social Security taxes.

Members who were elected after 1984 are automatically part of the FERS, or Federal Employees' Retirement System. Members elected before 1984 were in the CSRS, or Civil Service Retirement System. In 1984, those Members in CSRS had to choose to remain with CSRS, or switch to FERS. The Members elected before 1984 could further choose between full CSRS benefits, plus Social Security or CSRS benefits offset by Social Security.

A further variant in the amount of retirement benefits received is whether or not Members under either system choose to participate in the voluntary Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) open to all federal employees. Members under CSRS may contribute up to 5% of their salary and FERS Members 10% of their salary into this tax-deferred retirement investment fund. The differential favoring FERS Members is because pension benefits paid out under the old CSRS system are higher than those paid out under the current FERS system.

Both CSRS and FERS have differing formulas combining age and service factors which further affect how much a specific Member's pension will pay out. Therefore, the only solid averages concerning benefit payments are those that come from the just over 400 retired Members now actually drawing pensions.

The average annuity for retired Members, as of 1998, was either $50,616 [for those that retired under CSRS] or $46,908 [for Members that retired under FERS]. However, these averages don't take into account any additional funds these Members may have also accrued through investments in the Thrift Savings Plan described above.

Congressional pensions are funded the same way as those of other federal employees: through a combination of general tax provisions and contributions from the participants. Members of Congress in the FERS plan must pay 1.3% of their salary to FERS and 6.2% in Social Security taxes.

For more detailed information concerning pension benefits and age and service formulas under both CSRS and FERS, I recommend you obtain a copy of "Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress", a report by Patrick Purcell of the Congressional Research Service. [CRS Report RL30631, July 31, 2000]. CRS reports are free, but can only be obtained by requesting them through the office of a Member of Congress.

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