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Convicted Reps.’ Families May Still Get Pensions

As House Democrats continue their push to reform the chamber’s lobbying and ethics rules, they also are doing their part to create a more “family-friendly” Congress.

The Pension Forfeiture Act — which is expected to be voted on today after some last-minute revisions and a heated debate Monday evening — is a measure written by freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) designed to bar current and former Members of Congress who are convicted of certain felonies from receiving their federal pensions.

But the measure does give the Office of Personnel Management the discretion to pay out pension benefits to the family of a convicted former Member on the basis of financial need.

“The concern was that there may be a Member of Congress who ends up going off to jail and has a child who has no means of support, whether or not they have an illness or disability, and there aren’t any other family members or parent that could take care of the child,” explained Shanan Guinn, Boyda’s chief of staff. “The OPM should have the discretion to look at the totality of the circumstances and make a determination as to whether or not any funds should be dispersed to that child.”

The provision also would apply to spouses of convicted Members, and OPM could use a “totality of the circumstances test … if there’s a spouse whose sole means of support was her husband and he was convicted,” Guinn said.

Though a spokesman for OPM said Monday that the agency would wait until the bill became law to begin working on a system to determine how a family might fall under this provision, Guinn said precedent for the provision can be found in the Hiss Act, which allows the attorney general some flexibility in determining if families of individuals convicted of espionage may collect benefits, especially in instances where a spouse cooperates with federal authorities in the conduct of a criminal investigation and prosecution of an offender.

“Truly the genesis of this was wanting to … mirror the position of the Hiss Act … in case there ever was a situation where flexibility was needed to take care of a spouse or child that was in need,” Guinn said.

Boyda’s bill is based on a provision originally authored by Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) in the Republican lobbying reform bill that passed the House in the 109th Congress but never became law. Kirk said Monday that the OPM provision also detracts from the strength of the bill.

“In general, a penalty should be a penalty, and if the pension is canceled it sends a powerful signal to every Congressional spouse that you should watch over the actions of your husband or wife to make sure they are not taking any action that could jeopardize your future retirement income,” Kirk said. “The advantage of a penalty is it turns every spouse into a field office of the House ethics committee.”

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