[updated to reflect first comment]
There’s not a week that goes by in which I don’t end up debunking some urban legend about congressional perks. That Members don’t pay social security. Or that they get free tax advice. Or that they get free health care. Or whatever. Virtually none of it is true, as we will see below.
Well, at least not true anymore. Once upon a time, there were a fair number of things that could be classified as Member perks. Right through the 1980s, in fact. But in the wake of the House Banking Scandal, the House Post Office Scandal, and the 1992 election — perhaps the only true anti-incumbent congressional election ever, save 1854 — the perks were more or less eliminated. In fact, for all the solid, institution professionalizing reforms that the GOP instituted in 1995 (which I still believe is their most important positive legacy), the period between 1990 and 1995 was also a highwater mark for reform efforts, particularly those aimed at cleaning up the image of the institution.
And I’m reminded of a story former Speaker Carl Albert tells in his 1990 autobiography, which so perfectly captures the old-school mindset about these sorts of perks. The story is about 32-year Representative Tom Steed (D-OK). Steed was confronted by the local paper in Oklahoma about his taking of congressional perks, including flying first-class back and forth from his district to DC. Steed supposedly responded, “What the hell, I’m a first-class Congressman.” And in the autobiography, Speaker Albert doesn’t knock Steed. Quite to the contrary, he applauds him. “He was a first-class Congressman.” And so times change.
Here are some common perk questions I get asked, and the answers to them:
Do Members pay Social Security?
Yes. Prior to 1984, federal civil service employees didn’t pay social security, nor did they receive social security benefits. Instead, they had a separate retirement plan, the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). Under P.L. 98-21, federal employees hired after 1983 had to pay social security, and all Members (regardless of when first elected) have to pay social security. Since CSRS wasn’t designed to interact with Social Security, federal employees (including Members) who began service after 1984 were eligible for a new retirement system, the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS).
Do Members receive free or reduced rate health care while serving?
Incumbent and retired Members are eligible for the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP) under the same terms as other federal employees. The cost of the premiums are split between the employees and the federal government. The current formula comes from the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (P.L. 105-33), which sets the government contribution at 72% of the average premium of all plans but no more than 75% of the premium of any individual plan. By comparison, according to the Department of Labor, private sector employers’ share for coverage is 81% for individual coverage and 71% for family coverage.
Do Members receive reduced rates for services of the attending physician? Do Members receive reduced rate prescription drugs?
For an annual fee ($503 in 2010), Members can get basic health services from the Office of the Attending Physician in the U.S. Capitol and five other Capitol Hill locations. Dependent care is not included, nor is surgery, maternity care, dental care, or eyeglasses. Prescriptions may be written, but not filled, except for starter doses and emergencies. In the past, Members were eligible for services, including prescriptions, of the attending physician at no charge. In 1992, both the House and Senate eliminated the prescription benefit and instituted annual fees for the services.
Do retired Members get reduced-rate medical care?
No. They receive the same benefits as other federal employees: a one-time election to continue in FEHBP as a retiree, assuming they have been in it for five years and are eligible for an annuity.
Do retired Members get special pensions?
Sort of. Members can participate, as do other federal workers, in either the CSRS (if they were elected prior to 1984) or the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). The only difference between Members and other federal workers is that Members (as well as congressional staffers) have slightly higher contributions to the retirement systems, but are eligible for slightly higher benefits at slightly lower ages, with somewhat shorter vesting requirements. The rationale behind this is that congressional employees — be it Members or staffers — have somewhat less job security and therefore less certainty about their tenure.
Do Members receive reduced rate life insurance?
Members can participate in the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance Program (FEGLI) under the same terms as other federal employees.
Do Members receive reduced rates for use of the Capitol gym or other athletic facilities?
Both the House and Senate maintain a private gym for Members’ use. The annual fee for Members is about $250.
Can Members obtain free tax help from the IRS?
Until the 1990s, both the House and Senate opened temporary tax assistance offices to answer questions regarding tax return preparation. These offices were open to the general public and available for anyone to use, although by dint of their location, the services naturally were enjoyed mostly by Members and congressional staff. In 1994, the House discontinued the practice. The Senate discontinued the practice a year later.
Do Members receive reduced rates for use of Capitol restaurants, dry cleaning services, or barber/beauty shops?
Capitol restaurants, dry-cleaning vendors, and beauty/barber shops provide services at prices comparable to market rates. Some services — such as the House barber shop and beauty salon — have been privatized; others remain publicly run. Prior to changes made between 1992 and 1994, these services were often available at reduced rates. Members, however, have never received official rates that differed from staffers or from the general public.
Do Members have the option of buying furnishings from their House or Senate offices when they cease being Members of Congress?
In the House, departing Members can buy a standard Member desk and chair from their Washington, DC, office. The cost of the desk is approximately $1,000 and the chair $500. Under House Administration Committee regulations, Members-elect may choose to acquire any furnishings and equipment currently located and in use in their predecessors’ district offices. Any furniture and equipment not selected and retained for use by them, may be purchased by outgoing Members.
In the Senate, departing Senators may purchase office equipment located in their Washington, DC, or state offices, subject to certain restrictions. They may purchase only one of each type of equipment, and it must have reached the end of its expected useful life and been declared surplus to the needs of the Senate by the Sergeant at Arms at least 30 days prior to the end of a Senator’s tenure. A departing Senator may also purchase his or her Senate chamber chair. Within 30 days of leaving office, a departing Senator has the option to purchase any furnishings provided by the General Services Administration (GSA) in one home state office. The purchase shall be at depreciated fair market value prices and in accordance with regulations prescribed by GSA.
Do Members receive special parking privileges at Reagan National Airport or Dulles International Airport?
Members have received free parking in preferred lots at Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport since the facilities opened in 1941 and 1962, respectively. However, this benefit is not specified in statute; the parking spaces are provided as a courtesy by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. A legislative attempt to explicitly deny the benefit was defeated in the Senate in 1994 (S. Amdt. 1632 to S. 540, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess., Apr. 20, 1994).
Are there really free ice deliveries to Member offices on Capitol Hill?
Not anymore. It was discontinued in 1995.
Can you get a free or really cheap carwash in the Capitol Hill parking garages?
Not anymore. They were discontinued in the Senate in 1991 and in the House the following year.
Isn’t Congress exempt from civil rights and labor laws and such?
Nope. The 1995 Congressional Accountability Act applies 13 major workplace safety and other occupational laws to Congress, which previously did not apply to the legislative branch. One exception is the Freedom of Information Act. Of course, there’s a good reason for that: it may very well be unconstitutional to apply it; the speech and debate clause may prohibit it.
Do Members get to send constituent mail, and drive in fancy cars, and fly around the country, all for free?
Not really, and certainly not compared to how they used to. Once upon a time, Member travel and constituent mail costs were paid for in more or less unlimited amounts by the House. Members were given a certain number of trips they could take home to their district, but the cost of individual trips wasn’t really limited. Constituent mail was regulated as to what Members could send under the frank, but not how much. Even more to the point, Members did not have personal limits on how much mail they could send, nor did they have to disclose publicly how much they personally sent. It all came out of a general collective House account.
Contrast that with the system that emerged after a series of reforms were put in place between 1986 and 1998. Members may now travel to their district as often as they want, and they can still send as much franked mail as they want, but there are two general rules. First, all expenditures are now public. So every penny that Members spend on travel and/or franked mail is disclosed. Second, Members now have personal accounts (under the MRA system) from which all of their expenses are drawn. You can view the allowed and prohibited uses of the MRA here.
By formula, Members get roughly $1.4 million dollars each year in this account, which is used to pay their staff, buy office supplies, rent a district office, send mail, and travel. The upshot is that, unlike in the past, Members now have economic choices to make about franked mail and travel: every time you send franked mail or travel back to your district, you have less money to hire staff. The results of these reforms have been stunning: total franked mail expenditures in the House have decreased from over $77 million dollars in FY1988 under the old system, to just over $11 million in FY2011.
In effect, the combination of public disclosure and the market reform of fitting franked mail into the Members’ budgets has effectively incentivized more conservative budgetary behavior of Members. The larger point is that, yes, Members can still rent cars to use for official purposes, but the expenses for those rentals are now not only publicly disclosed, but also come at the cost of other possible uses of the money. Those two things won’t stop a determined Member from leasing a luxury car for official business if they really want to, but it does greatly disincentivize it. And I think it does take it out of the realm of perks.