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Congressional member evaluation: The economic aspect of holding office

September 10, 2008
With November fast approaching, it's easy to get caught up in the swell of election fever. While many people have most likely already made their pick for president, it's important to note there are also several Congressional seats up for grabs. House and Senate elections can often be overshadowed during presidential election years, but the importance of these elections in determining the direction of the legislative body in this country should not be ignored.

Decisions on who to vote for in any election are often based upon the positions and platforms of the candidates, as well as their past experiences and political records. However, voters should also keep in mind the job description of the positions these candidates are looking to fill, if for no reason other than simple good business practice. It's essential for the employer, in this case the voters, to know the job itself before they know who's right for it.

While most people have a pretty good idea what legislators do as far as their influence in making laws and approving government spending goes, the particulars of their actual job (i.e. salary, benefits and allowances) often go unnoticed and are rarely discussed in open venues or media outlets.

The number of hours a member of Congress actually works is hard to determine since being a public official sometimes demands certain actions, such as public appearances, outside of the actual job description. Appealing to the public may have its advantages for re-elections and gauging the mood of the member's district, but it's not required as a representative or senator. That being the case, the number of hours worked should be the number of hours they do the actual job for which they were elected. For senators, their job description entails proposing and voting on national laws, with the exclusive powers of voting to confirm federal judges and U.S. Supreme Court judges, approving presidential cabinet secretaries and approving treaties. For representatives, their job description is also proposing and voting on national laws but with the exclusive powers of initiating revenue bills, impeaching officials and electing the president when the number of electoral votes is tied.

Taking these job descriptions into account, the number of hours worked for a member of Congress can be directly drawn from the number of days they are in session. The days not in session for members are either labeled as vacation, holiday or district work. District work usually accounts for most of the days not in session, where members are given the opportunity to visit with their constituents or take care of other business in their district, though, again, this isn't mandatory.

From the period of 1987 to 2007, Congress was in session an average of 131 days a year. The year with the most days in session during this time was 1995, with 183, while the year with the fewest amount of days in session was 2006, with 104. Assuming an eight-hour work day, the average of 131 days in session translates into 1,048 hours worked per year for the 21-year period. For comparison, the average hours per year worked by U.S. workers during this period was around 1,829.

Despite having a relatively low number of days in session in the past years, with the exception of 2007 at 167, the salaries for members of Congress have risen steadily from 1987's salary of $89,500 to 2007's salary of $165,200 for rank and file members. Currently, House and Senate leaders of the majority and minority parties receive $188,100 annually, and the Speaker of the House gets $217,400 a year. Outside income earned by members is limited to 15 percent of their government salary.

The average yearly salary for rank and file members of Congress from 1987 to 2007 was $133,510. For comparison, the average annual income for a U.S. worker for this period was $27,093.

If you take the average yearly salary for members of Congress and divide it by the average number of hours worked, you get an hourly rate of $127 hour for the 20-year period. Using the same formula for the average hours worked by a U.S. worker and average annual income for this period, you get a rate of $15 an hour.

In addition to collecting a comparatively large check for comparatively less hours worked, members of Congress have access to several benefits that come with their jobs. Depending upon your level of frugality when it comes to tax money, these can be seen either as extravagant or a necessary cost.

One such benefit is the use of expense accounts known as allowances for members of both the House and Senate which are handled differently for each legislative branch. The House allowance system is known as "Members' Representational Allowance" or MRA. The MRA is actually a set of three individual allowances that all have distinct dollar limits. Those three are personnel allowances, official office expenses and official (known as "franked") mail. The personnel allowance is the same for each member, but the other two allowances are determined by the difference in mileage between Washington, D.C., and the member's district, the number of non-business addresses in the district and the cost of district office space.

According to an Aug. 30, 2007, report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Members' Representational Allowance for the year of 2007 ranged from $1,262,065 to $1,600,539. The average MRA for Indiana representatives in 2005 was $1,270,730.

The personnel allowance makes up the bulk of these numbers, as each member was given $831,252 in 2007 in order to hire no more than 18 permanent employees.

The official office expense varies from member to member, but they all start with a base of $194,980. Two additional allowances are then included. The first is determined by how far away the furthest point in a member's district is from Washington, D.C. You take that number plus 10 percent and multiply it by 64 times the rate per mile, which can range from 96 cents per mile if the furthest point is less than 500 miles away to 36 cents if it's 3,000 miles or more away.

The second added allowance is the dollar equivalent to 2,500 square feet multiplied by the applicable rental rate per square foot charged federal agencies by the administrator of the General Services Administration in a member's district.

According to the report, the official office allowance "may be used for travel, office equipment lease, district office rental, stationery (paper, envelopes and other supplies), telecommunications, printing, postage, computer services and other expenses." However, it can't be used for any personal, political or campaign-related expenses.

The rest of the MRA goes towards postage based on the number of addresses in the representative's district.

The Senate allowance system follows similar rules to the MRA and also is made up of three expense accounts. They're called the administrative and clerical assistance allowance, the legislative assistance allowance and the official office expense allowance. As with the House, these accounts vary in size. Senators are given different levels of allowances determined by state population, distance from Washington, D.C., and committee-imposed limits. The legislative assistance allowance, which funds up to three legislative assistants, was $472,677 for all senators in Fiscal Year 2006. The total of the three allowances available to a senator during FY2006 ranged from $2,528,193 to $4,111,381.

In addition to the perks of a large expense account, another major benefit that comes with being a congressperson is the pension plan. Prior to 1984, members of Congress were not eligible for Social Security nor did they pay taxes into it. They operated under a different pension plan known as the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS). After 1984, a new system, known as the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS), was developed that consisted of an amalgamation of Social Security, a monthly pension based on years of service and the average of the three highest consecutive years of basic pay and a Thrift Savings Plan, where members can deposit up to $15,500 a year and the government will match up to 5 percent of pay. Anyone elected after 1984 must either use the FERS plan or Social Security alone.

Members who were elected prior to 1984 had the choice of keeping the CSRS plan, accepting a "CSRS Offset," which combined Social Security with reduced benefits, taking the FERS plan or taking Social Security only by forfeiting the other coverages.

Pensions are eligible for members who are 62 or older and have served at least five years. They are also available for members who are 50 or older who have served at least 20 years, and at any age after 25 years of service.

According to another Congressional Research Service report for Feb. 9, 2007, "413 retired members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service" as of October 2006. Two hundred-ninety of these retirees retired under the CSRS plan are receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. The other 123 members retired under the FERS plan or the CSRS offset and are receiving an average annual pension of $35,952.

For access to the CRS reports used in this article, visit www.opencrs.com.

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