A picture like this posted on a Facebook wall makes all of our fiscal problems seem simple. It’s not Social Security, it’s not medicare, it’s those salaries for members of Congress and their pensions. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the the truth and actually frustrates efforts tough choices that are really necessary.
First of all, the numbers are wrong. The president earns $400,000 a year plus an expense account of $50,000 but only during his time in office. The President in retirement receives a pension of $191,400 which is tied to the salary of cabinet officials. To be fair, this is probably is something that could be eliminated. There may have been cause for it when the Former Presidents Act was passed in the 1950s with Presidents like Truman who was not a man of means, but being a former President these days is a multi-million dollar business. At the end of the day, we’re talking $764,000 for all four 4 former presidents.
The numbers are also wrong for former members of Congress. They do receive a pension based on their years of service, but it is NOT the same thing they got while in office. Those elected after 1984 are on the same pension plan as federal employees which leads to lower payments. In 2006, the average pension payout was $35,692 which is not a princely sum. Truly, Congressional pensions should be phased out along with all federal employee pensions. You can’t get these in the private sector as private employees realize they can’t afford to carry you forever. But the relatively small number of congressional retirees aren’t bankrupting the system and we spend about $94 million paying current members of congress.
Compare that to Social Security which has an annual budget at $768 billion. The obvious problems with the oft-posted Facebook meme is that while Presidents and Senators earn more than retirees there are far more of them and there will be an ever-increasing number of them.
These type of memes actually make it less likely that we’ll get down to brass tacks and address the real issues. Instead, they sell an absurd notion that we can solve a $750 billion dollar budget deficit with a few millions dollars in reduction to congressional and presidential benefits. The notion leads to anger when politicians try to do something that will actually work. Hey, what are you doing making changes to Social Security, cut Presidential pensions. That will solve Everything.
Yes, these programs could use some reform, but these Facebook memes only spread ignorance and suggest simplistic answers that feel good but are fiscally useless.