In Washington D.C., perks abound


In Washington D.C., perks abound

By JILLIAN JORGENSEN
Special to the Union Leader

Annual pay is almost $200,000.

Health benefits are among the best in the country.

Put your time in and you qualify for — better than a gold watch — a pension that will always be there.

Free air travel between home and the home office, plus parking privileges right next to the terminal.

Access to your employer’s health club. Convenient services nearby.

And after some time with “the company,” the Smithsonian will give you art from American masters to decorate your office in a national landmark.

Life is good, life is sweet when you’re in Congress.

All four members of the New Hampshire delegation pull in the same yearly salary: $174,000.

But it does come with a burden above and beyond worrying about the nation’s future and security, according to New Hampshire’s senior senator.

“Right now, most members of Congress, on the pay they receive, which is very generous, have to maintain two homes, at least two places to live, one in your district and one down here. And that gets pretty expensive, but you don’t get to deduct it,” Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said.

Congressional compensation does not stop at their salaries. Members of Congress have plum health insurance plans and safe pensions.

Senate offices can be sweeping suites, with high ceilings, multiple rooms and even working fire places.

But Gregg said that most of the perks that raised the ire of taxpayers have been eliminated.

“There’s been a significant change in the area that you might call perks in that most of them have been eliminated, to the extent that they existed, over the years,” said Gregg, who started in the House in 1981.

“There are issues that are still out there I presume; I can’t think of any significant ones. You know, things like the traditional issues everyone used to hear about, meals, and all that sort of stuff, that was an issue, and those have all been eliminated.”

While many small businesses have trouble providing health insurance to their employees because of high costs, members of Congress have access to the health benefits available to all federal employees.

The plan allows federal employees to choose the level and type of health insurance they want for themselves and their families. They can choose an HMO or fee-for-service plan.

The government pays up to 75 percent of a member of Congress’s premium, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., thinks every American should be able to buy into the plan “to ensure they can have the same exact insurance as members of Congress,” said Mark Bergman, Hodes’ spokesman.

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., uses her husband’s health insurance, but pays for dental and vision supplements, her spokeswoman Jamie Radice said.

The plan is not all it’s cracked up to be, said former congressman Charles Bass, who is now on the board of trustees of the Republican Main Street Partnership.

“To be honest with you, my health care plan right now at the Republican Main Street Partnership is cheaper than the federal plan, and the coverage is better,” Bass said.

While many pensions and 401(k)s have been decimated by plummeting stock prices or failing investment banks, members of Congress will receive generous pensions for their government service under the Federal Employees’ Retirement System, available to all federal employees.

Gregg is the only member from New Hampshire who has served in the federal government long enough to be vested in the pension plan.

Pensions are based on an average of a member’s three highest levels of pay in Congress, their length of congressional service up to 20 years, and any other government service.

Because Gregg, who has said he plans to retire from the Senate in January 2011, began his service in the House of Representatives in 1981 under the old Civil Service Retirement System, and served in the federal government non-continuously, it is difficult to calculate how much his pension will be worth.

But Pete Sepp, vice president for policy and communications at the National Taxpayers Union, estimates Gregg will receive about $55,000 a year.

When a member of the delegation needs to hop a flight back to New Hampshire for one of the weeks Congress is off, the government foots the bill — as long as it’s for business.

“That can become tricky,” Bass said. “I was allowed to fly to Boston or Manchester, but I was not allowed to fly to Providence to get to New Hampshire.”

Members also can use campaign money to travel to areas out of their district, as well as to pay for other expenses.

They also get to avoid one of the biggest airport hassles: finding and paying for a parking spot.

They can park for free at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport, according to Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

They can park in special spots and lots reserved for them, or in any spot in the lots other customers pay to park in, including hourly lots, Hamilton said.

Parking costs as much as $36 a day in the lots closest to the terminals at Reagan National, and $12 a day in the economy lot. At Dulles, the “valet” lot in front of the terminal will cost $30 for the first day and $19 for each additional day, while the economy lot costs $10 a day.

Bass said many members of Congress get dropped off at the airport by staffers, and said he usually took the Metro train to Reagan National Airport.

It is also free for members of Congress to park on Capitol Hill, where they can use garages at the Senate and House office buildings.

The buildings are all attached underground to the Capitol, and if a member is in a rush, he can take the Capitol’s free tram to and from the office.

Some perks have more to do with convenience than money. Members of Congress and their staffers only have to go to the basement of their office buildings to find banks, barber shops, post offices and even shoe shines — and all at a reasonable price.

Members of the House also can pay a monthly fee to work out at the Wellness Center reserved for members and former members, excluding those who have become lobbyists.

Neither Hodes nor Shea-Porter uses the gym, according to their offices, but Gregg does pay for a membership at the Senate gym.

Visits to the Smithsonian Institution museums are free to everyone, but for Congress, they can serve as trips to pick out some new decor: some members can display decorative items from the collections in their offices.

The Smithsonian only lends to members with Capitol offices, usually reserved for the congressional leadership, because the Senate and House curators can protect the artwork there, said Tim Nolan, in the Smithsonian’s Office of Government Relations.

Reform of the federal pay, retirement structure and ethics rules have stripped Congress of some of the cushier perks of the past, leaving them nearer to the level of other federal employees.

“Over the years, the compensation structure for members of Congress has been made to differentiate very, very little from that of the person working in the post office in Peterborough,” Bass said.

Jillian Jorgensen is an intern with the Boston University Washington News Service.

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