Beltway pensions: Let lawmakers opt out of the system

On the campaign trail, politicians go after one another like "Hunger Games" combatants. Once in office, however, they typically stand together to protect the perks of their positions.

That’s especially true in Congress, where lawmakers voted in 2003 to make it impossible for members to opt out of their pensions. After all, if anyone could refuse the income, everyone riding the gravy train would look bad. Candidates for Congress routinely shamed incumbents by promising to refuse a pension. The law put a stop to that practice.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., tried last year to withdraw from the congressional pension plan, only to be told he couldn’t. He has his own retirement savings plan and is in line for a military pension after more than 20 years in the Army Reserve. Rep. Heck did not want to pay $188 per month into the Federal Employees’ Retirement System for benefits that will provide him with a far greater return than any private-sector worker could expect from a similar investment.

On Friday, Rep. Heck introduced a bill that would allow members of Congress to exit the system. "If you don’t want to receive a taxpayer-funded pension, you shouldn’t be forced into receiving it," he said. "I didn’t come to Congress to collect a pension."

Yes, this is an election year. And Rep. Heck’s bill conveniently contrasts him against his Democratic challenger, Assembly Speaker John Oceguera. Mr. Oceguera retired last year after 20 years of service with the North Las Vegas Fire Department. Just 44 years old and healthy enough to continue working in whatever field he chooses, Mr. Oceguera is collecting a taxpayer-funded, lifetime pension of about $100,000 per year.

But there’s nothing wrong with politically motivated, election-year legislation if the reforms are needed. And Rep. Heck’s bill is more than appropriate in this economic climate. At a time when federal, state and local governments must pare back baseline budgets, and when so many taxpayers can’t even contemplate saving for their own retirements, it is maddening that citizens are further burdened by gold-plated pensions for so-called "public servants."

Members of Congress are paid $174,000 per year, more than enough to set aside savings for old age. We would prefer to see a bill that ends pensions for members of Congress altogether. But Rep. Heck’s bill is a good start.

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