Rep. Dicks says his six-figure pension is fair

Staff writerFebruary 21, 2013 

WASHINGTON — After retiring from a 36-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, Norm Dicks has no doubt that he’s worth every penny of his new pension: It will allow the Washington state Democrat to cash a monthly check from the U.S. government for $7,365.82.

That’s the net pay on his gross annual pension of $107,268, or $8,939 per month.

“I think I did a good job for the people in the state of Washington, you know. I think that this is fair, I really do,” Dicks, 72, said in an interview.

Dicks, who’s now working as a consultant with defense companies, is among a handful of departing members of Congress who are eligible for six-figure pensions in the first year of retirement. If he lives long enough, his pension could exceed his congressional salary of $174,000 in 2012, with members eligible for annual cost-of-living increases.

Altogether, about 75 new retirees will add to the estimated $28 million in yearly pension costs for Congress.

Critics say the pension system is far too generous and that members of Congress should put their retirement money on the table as they look for ways to cut federal spending.

Florida Republican Rep. Rich Nugent, a retired sheriff elected in 2010, said Congress should at least allow members to opt out of the pension system. Some members who’ve been around awhile declined to participate, including Republican Reps. Howard Coble of North Carolina and the just-retired Ron Paul of Texas.

But since September of 2003, all members of Congress have been required to participate in the pension plan.

“I guess that’s kind of the way you cover your butts, I’m not sure,” Nugent said.

Last month, he reintroduced a bill called the Congress Is Not A Career Act that would permit lawmakers to choose not to participate in the pension system or the federal Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k)-style plan that supplements the pension and allows members to save their own retirement money, receiving a match of up to 5 percent from federal taxpayers. He said the nation’s founding fathers never intended for people to make careers out of serving in Congress.

Dicks, the longest-serving House member in Washington state history, said he’d decided to lower his pension by opting for a survivors benefit that will provide payments to his wife, too. And he said he’d contributed up to 7.5 percent of his income each year to save for his retirement.

“It isn’t like you haven’t made a personal contribution,” said Dicks, who worked eight years as a Senate staffer before joining the House in 1977.

On average, congressional pensions are two to three times as generous as those offered to workers in the private sector with similar salaries, said Pete Sepp, the executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a 362,000-member group that’s long lobbied for tightening up the pension system. But he said those comparisons had become increasingly difficult to make because so many private employers have scrapped their defined-benefit plans, opting for 401(k) plans that rely mainly on employee contributions.

Specific pension amounts vary depending on years of service in Congress, whether members had other jobs in the federal government, when they enrolled and whether they’re married.

Estimates from the taxpayers union show the wide range of pensions that a handful of recent retirees have qualified for: $64,000 per year for Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman; $35,000 for Washington Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee, who became the state’s governor last month; $21,000 for Florida Republican Rep. Connie Mack; $16,000 for Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina.

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