WHEN DECRYING federal budget deficits, many members of Congress blame the problem on ever-increasing entitlement programs. Few of them have ever mentioned the soaring cost of one of the most absurdly generous entitlements -- their own pensions.
Consider the comfortable retirement that awaits Rep. Robert H. Michel, R-Ill. If the House minority leader decides he's had enough in 1993, he can begin to collect $104,000 a year as a reward for his government service, which would include 37 years in Congress.
Some may feel that, after spending all that time dealing with Republican cranks, he deserves every dollar. Imagine wasting even one hour in the company of Newt Gingrich. Still, I say Michel made his bed and he should have to wallow around in it with something much closer to the average man's modest private-sector pension.
If he wanted to be a really public-spirited sport, he could knock off almost $100,000 and be right down there with the great unwashed. Figures provided by the Employee Retirement Research Institute show that the median private pension is $4,208.
Michel is not a rarity. According to the National Taxpayers Union, a private, non-profit organization, 23 congressmen will be eligible for pensions of more than $89,500 in '93.
That means, once they officially start doing nothing, they will make more than they did in 1989 for doing nothing in Congress. Another 100 will be able, if they decide to leave their perks in a couple of years, to hit the retirement till for more than $50,000 per annum.
Even those who put in just a few years and then get voted back into private life do not have to worry about living on Alpo in their old age. Rep. Roy P. Dyson, a Maryland Democrat, was defeated last month after 10 years in office. At age 60 he can start drawing a $26,355 pension. Again, think about all of the ordinary people who have to work four times that long for one-sixth as much money.
In defense of their big fat security blankets, lawmakers point out that 8 percent of their salary goes into the federal retirement fund.
So? For many people, Social Security is all they have going for them. To get it they now are required to kick in 7.65 percent of their paychecks, up to $51,300 (a figure most never reach). At today's rates, the most they can collect from Social Security is about $11,600 a year.
All of the congressional retirement figures mentioned above are just for starters. Federal benefits are fattened by cost-of-living adjustments, another feature not available in most private pensions.
While congressional pensions are the best deal this side of the corporate world's golden parachutes, all government civilian and military personnel have generous retirement programs. So generous that old federal legislators, secretaries and soldiers, who cost taxpayers $5.3 billion annually in 1970, now add $55 billion to the budget.
Hastings Keith was a Massachusetts congressman from 1958 to 1972. Today, he draws benefits from four government programs -- Congress, the military, Social Security and an annuity from his late wife's federal pension.
When he first began collecting, the four subsidies provided him $18,720 a year. Now, because of his cost-of-living increases, his annual take is $90,408. From little COLAs, mighty bank accounts grow.
Keith, executive vice president of the National Committee on Public Employee Pension Systems, says he is a prime example of why reform is needed. But he doesn't say anything about giving part of the money back.
Hardly anybody ever does. Members of Congress should be, and they are, well-paid while in office. When they retire, they shouldn't take the public trough with them.