Bill Would Deprive Expelled Members of Pensions
But Some Leaders Worry About Proposed Measure’s Impact on Families of Felonious Ex-Lawmakers
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and a handful of his House colleagues are trying to make sure there is never another Member treated like former Rep. Jim Traficant (D-Ohio).
But it’s not because they think he got a raw deal. Rather, they want to prevent any other lawmaker from receiving a Congressional pension after being expelled from office as Traficant was last July.
As it currently stands, only Members convicted of a “high crime” such as treason can lose their pensions.
The move may sound like a no-brainer, but at least one influential Republican, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (Ohio), cautioned that Congress must look at the issue more carefully before moving forward on what could become a politically sensitive topic.
Under current law, despite the fact that he’s a convicted felon and incarcerated in federal prison for the next eight years, Traficant is eligible for a pension of more than $37,000 annually, based upon his 18 years in Congress. According to estimates developed by the National Taxpayers Union that pension could eventually be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to Traficant, who was found guilty in federal court last year on felony counts of bribery, racketeering and corruption. Traficant still owes nearly $250,000 in back taxes, penalties and fines to the government.
Miller, along with Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.), wants to stop future Traficants from receiving a Congressional pension, although his proposal faces an uncertain future.
“Our elected officials should be held to the highest standard,” Miller said in a statement released by his office. “If a Member of Congress does something heinous enough to be expelled from Congress then taxpayers should not be required to support that individual’s retirement.”
“If a member of the armed services is dishonorably discharged, they could potentially lose their pension,” Miller added. “Why is it any different for Members of Congress?”
Miller’s proposal would allow expelled lawmakers to retain credit toward a pension from any other federal service they may have, such as time in the military, as well as refunding to them any contributions made to retirement savings plans while they served in Congress.
Miller’s bill, which would not be applied retroactively to Traficant, has been sent to House Administration for action, and the Government Reform Committee also has jurisdiction over the legislation. Miller first introduced his proposal during the last Congress, although no action was taken at that time.
Ney, for his part, said the issue is more complex than it first appears.
“My gut tells me that this is something we’re going to have to take a look at, analyze it, find out what the repercussions of it are,” said Ney, who admitted that he has not reviewed Miller’s bill yet.
Ney said lawmakers should think about the potential impact on a Member’s family, and what steps could be taken to minimize that damage before approving Miller’s proposal.
“Are we doing this to penalize the Member? What about their families? It’s not as clear-cut as it looks at first blush,” Ney added.
This is not the first time that reform-minded lawmakers have tried to end pensions for Members convicted of serious crimes.
With Republicans using the case of former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) as their most important weapon in 1996, they actually pushed legislation through the House banning any Member convicted of a felony from receiving a pension. Rostenkowski was found guilty of two counts of mail fraud and spent 17 months in federal prison, although he remained eligible for a pension of nearly $100,000 based on his 36 years of Congressional service. That legislation stalled in the Senate, and Rostenkowski was eventually pardoned by former President Bill Clinton in December 2000.
NTU keeps a list of more than a dozen lawmakers who got their pensions despite felony convictions. “It’s a good place to start holding Members accountable for their behavior,” NTU spokesman Pete Sepp said of the Miller bill.
Miller has also introduced legislation to “nullify” the last cost-of-living adjustment received by lawmakers, worth $4,700 every year, as well as ending the practice of automatic COLAs unless Congress votes otherwise. Congressional insiders see little chance of that proposal being adopted.