WASHINGTON — When Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Rep. Robin Hayes leave office next month, they won't leave empty-handed.
The North Carolina Republicans, both multimillionaires and among the richest in Congress, will be eligible immediately for congressional pensions.
Dole, who served a six-year term, is eligible for about $15,000 a year for life. Hayes, who served five two-year terms, would get about $25,500 a year, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a government watchdog group that's been estimating congressional pensions for years.
Unlike some fixed pensions, the amounts will change with the cost of living adjustment.
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Those figures don't include additional pensions for other public service, or 401(k)-type plans for which they received a partial federal match.
"Even after attempts to reform the system in the early 1980s, members of Congress were left with a very sweet deal," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the taxpayer advocacy group. "They get both defined benefit pensions and a defined contribution plan. Most workers in America have to choose one or the other if they're even offered both."
Sepp said that most Americans in these troubled economic times don't have guaranteed benefits to rely on from employers.
Only 13 percent of private-sector workers have both a pension, in which they get a fixed amount every month, and a defined contribution plan, which most people know as a 401(k) or similar type plan, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Only 18 percent have a pension at all; 90 percent of government workers do.
Congress members earn $169,300 a year and are vested in their pension after five years of service.
While they're automatically enrolled in the plan, it is possible to opt out of it – though that appears to be rare.
Rep. Howard Coble, a Republican from Greensboro, campaigned against the congressional pension system in his first race in 1984 and has never enrolled in it. He said he knows of only one other lawmaker who isn't in the plan, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, whose office confirmed he doesn't participate.
"It's a taxpayer ripoff," Coble said.
"I think the taxpayers probably should contribute to a modest pension, but this one is not modest. This is a lavish pension plan, vesting at five years and automatic cost of living (increases) worked into that."
"It was not my most brilliant financial decision," Coble said. He would have been eligible for about $65,000 a year if he retired now, after 12 terms in office.
Sepp said that congressional pensions are more generous than other federal pensions, even among government workers earning the same amount as lawmakers. They're both calculated based on length of service, top three years of salary and what's known as an accrual rate. That rate is 1.7 percent for Congress members, but only 1 percent for other federal workers, he said.
Hayes' personal assets are valued at between $75 million and $272 million, making him the fifth-richest member of both the House and the Senate, according to a 2007 ranking by the Center for Responsive Politics. The textile heir from Concord didn't have a comment for this story.
Dole spokesman Wes Climer said in a written statement:
"Senator Dole is focused on ensuring that constituents who came to her for help are having their cases resolved or forwarded to the appropriate officials before she leaves office, and hasn't given any thought to a federal pension."
Dole, whose assets between $15 million and $48 million make her the 23rd-richest lawmaker on Capitol Hill, will get a congressional pension that is just a sliver of what her husband was eligible for.
Robert Dole, the former U.S. senator from Kansas who served about 27 years, stood to get a minimum of $107,000 a year when he left to run for president, Sepp said, but the number would be considerably larger by now due to cost of living adjustments.
Both Hayes and Elizabeth Dole lost re-election bids in November.
Coble said for years he tried to reform the system, first introducing a bill to wipe it out completely, and then trying to get the vesting period extended to six years.
"Neither of those bills saw the light of day," Coble said. "Nowhere close."