Congress costs you $2.8 billion despite "reforms"
By Peter Keating

(MONEY Magazine) – Before you step into the voting booth Nov. 8 to cast your ballot, keep this in mind: In August 1992, MONEY pegged the cost of running Congress at about $2.8 billion (actual outlays in 1992 totaled $2.68 billion). Three months later, 123 freshman representatives and senators were elected, many after vowing they would reform the institution and cut the bloat. Guess what? It didn't happen. According to our current calculations, U.S. legislators are spending almost as much as ever on themselves. Outlays for the House, Senate, legislative agencies and joint staffs will total an estimated $2.76 billion in 1994 -- a 1.4% decrease after adjusting for inflation. That's hardly a slashing. What's more, pay and benefits for senators and representatives have kept on rising. This year, taxpayers will pay each member $175,746 in salary and perks, up 4.5% from $168,202 in 1992. Says Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C. watchdog group: "The fire in the belly of '92 turned into jelly in the belly of '93 and '94." What happened -- or more precisely, didn't happen? Reform advocates were banking on the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, a cost-cutting task force, to perform serious liposuction on legislative fat. But after 18 months of wrangling, the committee produced a modest package of recommendations. Then key House and Senate rules committees further eviscerated the proposals. Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner (shown opposite), an ardent advocate for congressional staff cuts, blames top Democrats: "There are a handful of powerful leaders and committee chairs, and reform means that they would have to give up some of their own power and privileges." But some Republican leaders, hoping that gains in the November elections will leave them with a majority in one or both chambers, have also been stalling on comprehensive reforms. In some cases, one body of Congress has truly cut its spending but the other hasn't budged. For instance, the Senate decided to ban sending unsolicited postage-free mail, a 219-year-old practice known as franking, in this election year. That will save $9 million in fiscal 1995, which begins Oct. 1. But House members have continued stuffing mailboxes at your expense. During the first half of '94, representatives lapped up $17.9 million worth of "free" postage, 33% more than during the same period of '93. The franking king: Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who spent $124,760 on unsolicited mass mailings between January and June of this year. Here's how our lawmakers remain among the richest 2% of working Americans: -- Pay. A 3.2% pay hike in 1993 raised legislators' salaries to $133,600 annually, up from $129,500 in 1992. Members voted to forgo their 2.1% cost-of- living adjustment for the 1994 election year and are talking seriously about giving up a 2.6% COLA for 1995 as well. -- Fringe benefits. Taxpayers pay 75% of annual Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance premiums for members of Congress and their staffs, at a cost of $3,648 apiece. But with the public losing patience with such generous benefits, in early 1993 House Speaker Tom Foley began letting the Capitol doctors' office, known as the Office of the Attending Physician (annual budget: $1.7 million), charge senators and representatives a small, flat annual fee of $540 for senators, $270 for representatives. Most congressional perk reforms have been more show than substance, though. Parking on Capitol Hill, for instance, used to be reserved and free; now spaces are no longer reserved, though they're still free (estimated value: $2,897 a year per member, according to an audit by Ernst & Young). -- Pensions. Members of Congress have given no ground on their juicy pensions, however, despite the fact that they are double to triple what most private employees get. Example: The eight senators leaving office in 1994 will collect an average pension of $2,190,477 each over the course of their lives, according to an analysis by the National Taxpayers Union. Might Congress start to heal itself after the November elections? Don't count on it. Says Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington research organization: "The institutional pull of old habits dies hard. The longer members stay in, the closer they become to everything they once despised. There's never been a sequel to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, because we all know what would happen to him today."


Despite the efforts of Rep. John Boehner (right) -- and others -- to ax congressional costs, the totals keep rising. Members get packages of taxpayer- paid salary and perks that now total $175,746, up from $168,202 the last time we looked in August 1992. The details:

Salary $133,600 Annual value of perks:

Pension plan 1 (portion paid by taxpayers) $27,121 Tax-deferred savings plan (matching contribution) 2 6,680 Health insurance (portion paid by taxpayers) 3 3,648 Free parking on Capitol Hill 4 2,897 Tax deduction for living in Washington, D.C. 5 1,080 Subsidized gymnasiums 6 428 Taxpayer-paid portion of $136,000 in life insurance 7 292 Total annual value of perks $42,146 WHAT WE'LL PAY MEMBERS OF CONGRESS $175,746

Notes: 1 MONEY estimate based on annual portion of retirement benefits paid by federal government for legislators in Civil Service Retirement System and Federal Employee Retirement System 2 For legislators who contribute 5% of pay. 3 Taxpayer-funded portion of annual $4,860 Blue Cross/Blue Shield premium 4 Estimate based on government valuation of nearby parking ($290 a month) minus tax paid by members for parking 5 Each member gets a $3,000 tax deduction to offset the cost of running two households 6 Estimate of the cost of nearby private health club minus the $400 members pay for Congress' gyms 7 Taxpayers pay a third of each term policy's $876 annual premium.