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Members of the United States Congress who have served for a minimum number of years are eligible to receive a Congressional pension. This is an annual payment intended to support the former legislator in retirement. The amount paid depends on the legislator's age and length of service.
Congress introduced the first Congressional pension in 1942. The legislation proved unpopular, partly because of the atmosphere of financial sacrifice prevailing in the United States during the Second World War, and was quickly repealed. In 1946, Congress reinstated the Congressional pension.
The mechanism of the Congressional pension has changed occasionally since its introduction. The 1946 legislation established a Congressional pension by including members of Congress under the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), a Federal program which provided retirement benefits to government employees. In 1987, Congress ruled that all future Congressional pensions were to be administered by the new Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). This law applies to all members of Congress elected after 1984; those who have served since before 1984 can opt to participate in the FERS plan or remain in the existing CSRS one.
Participation in the Congressional pension plan is voluntary, and not all members of Congress are enrolled. Some elect not to have their pension payments deducted from their salary. Others have even actively campaigned against the Congressional pension. For instance, Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul criticized the pension system in the 1990s, pointing out that it paid pensions much higher than most people could hope to earn working in the private sector.
The pension plan offered to members of Congress by the FERS is indeed generous compared to most pension plans. In 2002, retired members of Congress were receiving an average of between $41,000 and $55,000 US Dollars (USD) annually. This represents a high rate of return on their payments. It has been estimated that legislators pay for only about 20 percent of their pensions.
The Congressional pension system has occasionally been the subject of controversy. Notably, even members of Congress who are ejected for ethical violations or convicted of crimes still receive their pensions. Several legislative attempts have been made to change this, notably the 2007 Congressional Pension Forfeiture Act, created as a response to the 2005 scandal surrounding corrupt legislator Randall "Duke" Cunningham. Although the bill passed the Senate, it was sent to the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which failed to report on it. As a result, the bill never became law.
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