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Federal Pensions

February 07, 1986

Hastings Keith, a former Republican congressman from Massachusetts, says there's plenty of fat in federal pensions (Editorial Pages, Jan. 26). It may be true in his case, but unfortunately he wants to tar all federal retirees with the same brush. And he uses some funny facts in trying to do so.

For one thing, there is his curious use of weekly pension amounts when he knows that his Civil Service/congressional retirement, his military and his Social Security payments are all made on a monthly basis. The monthly amounts he has received are so much more impressive. The $360 a week he received upon retirement in 1973 translates to $1,560 per month, and the $1,377 he now receives for all three pensions translates to $5,967 a month. Based on the actual cost-of-living adjustments since 1973, his congressional retirement alone would now amount to nearly $4,000 a month of the $5,967 figure.

Keith does not specify the length of service on which his initial retirement of $1,560 a month was based. If it is only his 14 years in the Congress, then I would agree with him--his pension was and is excessive. Most federal employees who retired in 1973 received about half that amount for twice the length of service.

None of this retirement pay was forced on Keith. The payments didn't start automatically; he had to apply for each of them. If he is embarrassed about receiving them or doesn't think he deserves them, a simple letter to any or all of the paying agencies will stop them. Or, if he thinks he deserves them but gets too much, he can easily refund the excess to the Treasury.

It may be no hardship for a person who receives nearly $6,000 a month in retirement pay to forgo a few cost-of-living increases, but the same is not true for retirees receiving a half or a quarter as much.

His example of the employee who paid only $6,600 into the retirement fund but will receive $342,000 is indeed startling. It is certainly possible, such as for a relatively young person receiving permanent disability retirement after only a short period of service, but it is hardly typical of 2 million retirees.

Keith was relatively new to Congress when that body voted to maintain the buying power of a retiree's pay at approximately the level it was when he or she first retired. Most government employees built their careers and planned their lives on that promise. It was a simple and fair commitment that was rarely if ever challenged until long after Keith left the Congress and started drawing his retirement pay. But it has been chipped away at frequently in the past few years in the name of budget-balancing at a time of cutting taxes and expanding national defense. Gramm-Rudman is only the latest and most extreme effort along these lines.

It is strange that no one has suggested skipping interest payments on the national debt for a year or so. Think of the budget-balancing potential there! But apparently there is less shame and dishonor in breaking your word to your own employees than in breaking your word to investors.



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