Howard Coble, in rare move, turns down congressional pension

Like most members of Congress, Republican Reps. Howard Coble of North Carolina and Norman “Doc” Hastings of Washington state are millionaires.

They also share something else: They’ll retire at the end of the year after turning down lucrative congressional pensions.

Coble, 83, is surrendering a pension estimated at $130,500 a year, while Hastings, 73, is giving up roughly $53,000 a year.

But if history is any indication, most departing members of Congress will conduct business as usual, cashing in on a retirement system that critics say is too generous and costs too much.

After 40 years in the House of Representatives, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., will be eligible for an annual pension of $125,500. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., will retire after 20 years, qualifying for a yearly pension of $53,000.

And Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., defeated this month in her bid to win a second term, will be eligible for an annual pension of $16,000 after serving just six years.

Their pensions will rise with yearly cost-of-living increases, too.

“The average American would be thrilled to have a package like this,” said Pete Sepp, president of the National Taxpayers Union, who computed the estimates.

Sepp, a longtime tracker of congressional pensions, said that even if the economy sours again, “for most lawmakers the golden years won’t be tarnished all that badly.”

As of October 2013, 617 former members of Congress were drawing pensions under two plans, the Congressional Research Service said in a report in June.

Under the older plan, which covered members elected before 1984, 367 members were receiving average annual pensions of $71,664.

The remaining 250 members were getting average pensions of $42,048, the report said.

Coble and Hastings both promised early in their careers not to accept a congressional pension. Sepp said that former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is the only other lawmaker he knows of who made a similar decision.

Coble said he also decided not to participate in the congressional Thrift Savings Plan, similar to a 401(k) plan. This year members could invest $17,500 in the plan, with an employer match of 5 percent of their annual salary of $174,000.

Coble said an accountant told him that his decisions to forgo both plans would cost him $2 million over his lifetime.

“It was stupid on my part,” said Coble, who’s moving to a retirement home in Greensboro, after 30 years in the House. “I’d like to have that now, but that cow’s out of the barn.”

Coble, a former state legislator who also rejected his state pension, said he made the decision during his first term in Congress, when pensions became a hot topic on the campaign trail.

“I got to thinking, you know, the taxpayers are paying my salary, and they shouldn’t have to pay my congressional pension,” Coble said. “I realize now it was not my most brilliant financial decision, by any means.”

Hastings declined to be interviewed, but he outlined his rationale in a message to his constituents last year.

“While I plan on receiving Social Security benefits upon retirement, I do not believe public officials should unduly benefit from their years of representing their constituents,” Hastings wrote.

But Hastings, also a former state legislator, has been drawing his state pension for years. His most recent financial disclosure statement, filed in June, showed that he received $2,539 from the state of Washington for his pension in 2013.

While proponents of the system say the officeholders have earned their retirement money, opponents say the pensions are two to three times as generous as those offered to workers who earn similar salaries in the private sector.

Pensions vary widely, depending on years of service, marital status, whether members had other jobs in the federal government, and when they enrolled.

Rep. Miller of California, who was first elected in 1974, will receive one of the largest.

His spokeswoman, Julia Krahe, said Miller did not want to be interviewed.

“I can confirm for you that he will be taking his pension,” she said. “I mean, he worked for 40 years for it.”

Press aides for Chambliss and Hagan did not respond to requests for comment.

Members of Congress can begin drawing a full pension at age 62, or younger if they’ve served a long time. Beginning pensions cannot exceed $139,000, which is 80 percent of the base congressional salary.

To qualify for a pension, members must serve at least five years.

When Coble proposed changing the vesting requirement to 12 years for new members, he thought he could quickly line up co-sponsors. But he couldn’t find a single one.

“Most folks up here just ignored it,” Coble said.

Sepp said Congress did approve one change in 2012 that will save money in the long run: making the pension accrual rate for new members of Congress the same as for federal employees. As an example, he said, that would reduce the pension for a married, 20-year member who begins drawing at age 62 from $53,000 to $34,000 a year.

“It’s going to be a while before taxpayers actually see significant savings from those reforms,” Sepp said. “How many lawmakers really want to retire after two or three terms once they get the seat?”

In January, the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that studies the effect of money in politics, reported that for the first time, most members of Congress had attained a high enough average net worth to make them millionaires.

Coble, Hastings and Hagan were all included on the list of 268 millionaires, which was based on a review of 2012 financial disclosure statements.

Hagan ranked ninth in the Senate, with $24 million. Hastings ranked 194th in the House, with $1.1 million. And Coble ranked 120th in the House, with $2.7 million.

Coble said most of his wealth is tied up in fixed assets and that he’ll need a new cash flow once he loses his congressional salary.

“I’m going to have to tap into some of that,” he said. “I’m trying to work on that now. I believe if I had changed my mind and accepted the pension I think most of my constituents would probably have forgiven me, but I’m boxed out now.”