It’s seemingly been a pretty rough autumn on Capitol Hill. Last month, the public’s approval rating for Congress dropped to 9 percent, the lowest ever, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
But there’s still plenty for the nation’s lawmakers to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Being a member of Congress remains a surprisingly sweet gig.
In addition to the power to shape policy and public discourse, legislators get great health care and retirement benefits, hefty salaries with annual cost of living increases and the incumbency-boosting ability to blanket constituents with mail touting their achievements.
But there are many less-publicized perks that come along with the job. Here are a few to keep in mind the next time you hear politicians refer to themselves as “public servants.”
Capitol Hill Conveniences
Members of Congress have long been treated as a class apart at the Capitol.
For years there were members-only parking spaces, elevators, dining rooms and exercise facilities to which all legislators — past and present — enjoyed lifetime access. Former lawmakers could also return to the floor of the House or Senate whenever they liked.
In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, access to these privileged places was curtailed in 2006 for ex-members of Congress who registered as lobbyists. This meant that Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana turned lobbyist, could no longer frequent Bennett’s Court, the nickname given to the members-only tennis court in the Hart Senate Office Building.
These changes have led to some apparent confusion among former legislators. On the first day that the 112th Congress met in January, lobbyist Bob Livingston, a former Republican Representative from Louisiana and friend of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was asked to leave the House floor. “I was under the impression that opening day and the State of the Union were days when I, as a lobbyist, could indeed go on the floor,” Livingston told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “When I was informed that I was mistaken, I left.”
Lawmakers’ perks aren’t limited to the legislature. Airports and airlines — the profits of which can be heavily impacted by decisions made on the Hill — also pamper politicians.
Staff schedulers often times make reservations for members of Congress via dedicated phone lines that Delta and other major airlines have reportedly set up for Capitol Hill customers. Airlines also permit members to reserve seats on multiple flights but only pay for the trips they take. “We get on every single flight,” one congressional aide familiar with the process told Roll Call last month.
Whenever lawmakers decide to show up for a flight, they are also guaranteed free parking at the two Washington-area airports, according to a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. At Reagan National, 89 spaces out of 8,000 are reserved for members of Congress, diplomats and Supreme Court justices; at Dulles International, 97 of 25,000 are set aside.
Former Rep. Tom Davis, R – Va., defended the airport amities in a 2007 interview with WTOP. “Members like to get out of town and get back with their constituents,” he said. “If you make it hard for members to move back and forth from their districts, then the people are going to say, ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you back here?’”
Even if a lawmaker was to become the ninth member of Congress killed in a plane crash while in office, generous benefits would be awarded to his or her family.
The families of current members of Congress who die typically receive a full year’s salary as compensation. Survivors of Representatives are entitled to an additional sum. That amounts to at least $174,000 for rank and file legislators, and more for those in leadership positions.
It’s not unusual for death benefits to be paid to the relatives of people who die while working for the government; what’s surprising is the scope of the benefits for lawmakers. By comparison, the families of members of the armed forces killed on the battlefield in Iraq or Afghanistan are only entitled to $100,000 for their loss.
No legislator – living or dead – has been paid a higher salary by the taxpayer than Speaker Boehner.
While in office, the Ohio Republican will get the top annual salary in Congress: $223,500. His Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D – Nev., and other congressional leaders are paid much less, $193,400 per year.
The House speaker’s taxpayer-funded perks don’t stop when he leaves office. Like all members of Congress who have held office for at least five years – Boehner has been in the House since 1991 – he is entitled to a generous pension.
But Boehner gets an additional benefit: Up to $1 million per year for up to five years after he leaves the office to “facilitate the administration, settlement and conclusion of matters pertaining to or arising out of” his tenure as speaker of the House, according to a little known law.
This provision has allowed former Speaker Denny Hastert, R – Ill., to rack up more than $997,000 during the course of three years to document materials related to his time in office. “The archiving continues to go on,” spokesman Brad Hahn told the Chicago Tribune in Feb. 2010. “I wouldn’t want to speculate on a timeline.”
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