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Posted on Feb 17, 2009 in Strange Congress

Strange Congress: Congressional Perks You Pay For

With so much talk on Capitol Hill about the need for capping the perks and salaries afforded to executives of companies who are seeking federal dollars, I thought that it would be interesting to explore some of the perks that are received by those who not only seek, but spend our hard-earned dollars: Members of Congress.

Free parking: Not only do members of Congress receive parking on Capitol Hill, but they also receive free (prime) private parking spots at the two nearby airport, Reagan National and Dulles airport.

Salary: The current salary for a member of Congress is $174,000. However, Congress has the authority to raise their salary as they wish, without having to hold a vote. It’s also interesting to note that during the great depression, members of Congress voluntarily took a pay cut… I somehow don’t think we’ll see that happen these days.

Perks from Lobbyists: Despite a slew of ethics regulations regarding gifts from lobbyists, Members of Congress are still able to use their lobbyist ties to get into events that regular people simply do not have access to. For example, if a Member of Congress wanted a prime ticket to a sold-out event, he could still get that ticket from lobbyists he’s close with, as long as the face value of the ticket is reimbursed by the Member. However, this money doesn’t have to come from the Member’s pocket, but instead can come from the usually deep campaign account, which usually contains money from lobbyists and their associated PACs.

Days Off: While most Americans get one day off for Memorial Day and sometimes Presidents Day, members of Congress get the entire week off. However, Congress doesn’t like to call these vacation days, but instead call them “District Work Periods,” even though there is nothing requiring them to be in their district during those times. Congress also gets a number of additional recesses, some lasting as long as a month.

Additional perks of being in Congress, all paid for by you, the taxpayer (from NTU):

  • Comfortable salaries that are often determined through legislative sleight-of-hand. Contrary to the arguments of many Washington “insiders,” the cost of living has rarely eroded the historical value of lawmakers’ pay, which on a constant-dollar basis is hovering near the postwar high.
  • Pension benefits that are two to three times more generous than those offered in the private sector for similarly-salaried executives. Taxpayers directly cover at least 80 percent of this costly plan. Congressional pensions are also inflation-protected, a feature that fewer than 1 in 10 private plans offer.
  • Health and life insurance, approximately 3/4 and 1/3 of whose costs, respectively, are subsidized by taxpayers.
  • Travel to far-flung destinations as well as to home states and districts. Despite recent attempts to toughen gift and travel rules, “junkets” are still readily available prerogatives for many Members.
  • A wide range of smaller perks that have defied reform efforts, from cut-rate health clubs to fine furnishings.
  • The franking privilege, which gives lawmakers millions in tax dollars to create a favorable public image. Experts across the political spectrum have labeled the frank as an unfair electioneering tool. In past election cycles, Congressional incumbents have spent as much on franking alone as challengers have spent on their entire campaigns.
  • An office staff that performs “constituent services” and doles out pork-barrel spending, providing more opportunities for “favors” that can be returned only at election time.
  • Exemptions and immunities from tax, pension, and other laws that burden private citizens — all crafted by lawmakers themselves.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I encourage everyone to explore some of the additional perks Congress currently receives, but also examine what bonuses came with the job in previous years.

This post is part of a weekly series on, “Strange Congress,” dedicated to educating Americans about the parts of Congress they may not have learned in school. To subscribe to only the Strange Congress feed, click here.