United States Congresses - Privileges and Pay - Pay and Benefits

Pay and Benefits

From 1789 to 1815, members of Congress received only a daily payment of $6 while in session. Members received an annual salary of $1,500 per year from 1815 to 1817, then a per diem salary of $8 from 1818 to 1855; since then they have received an annual salary, first pegged in 1855 at $3,000. In 1907, salaries were raised to $7,500 per year, the equivalent of $173,000 in 2010 dollars. In 2006, members of Congress received a yearly salary of $165,200. Congressional leaders were paid $183,500 per year. The Speaker of the House of Representatives earns $212,100 annually. The salary of the President pro tempore for 2006 was $183,500, equal to that of the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. Privileges include having an office and paid staff. In 2008, non-officer members of Congress earned $169,300 annually. Some critics complain congressional pay is high compared with a median American income of $45,113 for men and $35,102 for women. Others have countered that congressional pay is consistent with other branches of government. Congress has been criticized for trying to conceal pay raises by slipping them into a large bill at the last minute. Others have criticized the wealth of members of Congress. Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee told Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig that a chief problem with Congress was that members focused on lucrative careers as lobbyists after serving––that Congress was a "Farm League for K Street"––instead of on public service.

Members elected since 1984 are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Like other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and participants' contributions. Members of Congress under FERS contribute 1.3% of their salary into the FERS retirement plan and pay 6.2% of their salary in Social Security taxes. And like Federal employees, members contribute one-third of the cost of health insurance with the government covering the other two-thirds.

The size of a congressional pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest three years of his or her salary. By law, the starting amount of a member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary. In 2006, the average annual pension for retired senators and representatives under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) was $60,972, while those who retired under FERS, or in combination with CSRS, was $35,952.

Members of Congress make fact-finding missions to learn about other countries and stay informed, but these outings can cause controversy if the trip is deemed excessive or unconnected with the task of governing. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported lawmaker trips abroad at taxpayer expense, which included spas, $300-per-night extra unused rooms, and shopping excursions. Lawmakers respond that "traveling with spouses compensates for being away from them a lot in Washington" and justify the trips as a way to meet officials in other nations.

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