The Lawmaker’s Pension

What kind of benefits do you get when you’re kicked out of Congress?

Blanche Lincoln. Click image to expand.
Blanche Lincoln

Two incumbent senators and 51 incumbent members of the House lost their jobs in Tuesday’s election. If the Explainer gets fired, she’ll be entitled to certain benefits, like unemployment insurance and COBRA health care—will the outgoing legislators get a parachute, too?

Yes, but some get better deals than others. “Retiring” members of Congress (a designation that includes those who have lost elections) are eligible for a pension starting at age 62 if they’ve served at least five years, at age 50 if they’ve served 20 years, or at any age after they’ve served 25 years. The amount of the pension depends on salary and years in office. As of 2008, the average annual pension among qualifying retirees was $37,824. To take one example from this year’s departing class, Rep. Fred Allen Boyd Jr. of Florida’s 2nd District—who’s 65, has been in office since 1997, and was making $174,000 per year—will be getting a pension of a little more than $41,000 per year. Of course, many of the outgoing lawmakers—like Tom Perriello of Virginia, who’s just 36 and lost his first re-election bid—won’t receive a pension. They’re too young or haven’t been on the job long enough, or both.

Any lawmaker will have had the option to pay in to the Thrift Savings Plan, a tax-deferred investment program similar to a 401(k) with matching contributions from the government. There’s a penalty for withdrawing before a certain age—usually 59½, though, as with all savings plans, there are exceptions to that rule.

As for health care, those eligible for pensions can keep purchasing insurance through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and may also keep their spouses and children under 22 enrolled. The pensionless can get Temporary Continuation Coverage, which is similar to COBRA, for 18 months. They must pay the full premium (the employee and government shares) plus a 2-percent administrative charge.

For 90 days after leaving office, outgoing members are also entitled to “closing of office” funds, which help cover the cost of sending official papers to libraries and the like.

Can former members of Congress apply for unemployment insurance? Generally the federal government requires that the states provide benefits for workers terminated due to no fault of their own (which arguably could include politicians who have fallen out of favor with their constituents). It’s permissible, however, for the states to exclude certain types of “service,” including elected office, as well as temporary emergency employment, and policymaking positions. According to this Department of Labor document (PDF), it would seem that all the states have gone ahead and excluded elected officials from eligibility. Some confusion remains, however, when it comes to local officials. In 2009, a Rosemead, Calif., city councilman who’d failed in his re-election bid collected more than $11,000 in unemployment.

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Explainer thanks Donald Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate.

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