10 Perks Congress Has That You Don't


Following a 16-day government shutdown, another round of kick-the-can when it comes to the U.S. debt ceiling, and rabid debates over the future of Obamacare, it's not surprising to discover that Americans don't think very highly of Congress.

I know from a personal perspective I'm not too pleased with the effort either party has put in over the past couple of years, but three polls since 2011 speak wonders to the amount of vitriol directed at Congress.

Source: White House on Flickr.

Separate polls from The New York Times, Public Policy Polling, and Gallup (conducted between 2011 and 2013 for the latter two) show that Congress' approval rating comes in at a record low of between 9% and 11%, depending on which source you choose. As Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) so aptly put it (link opens a YouTube video) in 2011 while speaking to members of Congress about its 9% approval rating, "We're almost at the margin of error for zero!"

These aforementioned poll-takers put it into even more context by asking Americans what their opinion was of Congress relative to other unfavorable ideas, people, and tasks. According to their results, Congress is viewed less favorably by the public than dog poop, hemorrhoids, traffic jams, cockroaches, lines at the DMV, zombies, herpes, banks, Brussels sprouts, the IRS, used-car salesmen, and Wall Street. However, by some saving grace, Congress has remained in a better light than Miley Cyrus.

While the results are understandably comical, they're also incredibly sad. Why? Because Congress is in control of setting the laws that individuals and corporations are governed by.

As I discussed in June, public perception can be a dangerous tool that can destroy stock market rallies even if companies are delivering solid growth prospects. Investors' faith in Congress is crucial, as their ability to navigate the upcoming debt-ceiling debate in early February could have a profound impact on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) and broad-based S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC ) . Even though both the Dow and S&P 500 hit new all-time highs this week, the government shutdown is estimated to have cost the U.S. $24 billion in GDP and we're no closer to a long-term debt-ceiling and federal deficit solution than we were at this time last week. A prolonged government shutdown and debt default would portend bad news for both major U.S. indexes moving forward.

However, what could be most disconcerting thing of all are the perks members of Congress get as a "thank you" for serving their country. I've highlighted countless company perks over the years that companies grant their employees, and some did involve exorbitant pay packages, free gym memberships, and hefty retirement plans. But there are few company perks that compare with these 10 taken together.

1. A base annual salary of $174,000
Admittedly, there should be some premium in pay for setting the laws and running the country as elected officials, and certain companies do grant their employees exorbitant pay packages, but being a member of Congress includes a minimum annual paycheck of $174,000, which is more than three times higher than the average private-sector salary of $51,986 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Source: Global X, Flickr.

2. Free airport parking
How much would you pay for an airport parking spot that was directly next to the terminal you landed at? For Congress, it's a big fat zero. At one time in its history, long before the Airport Authority controlled Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport in the Washington, D.C., area, the federal government operated them. When the Airport Authority took over in 1987, as a courtesy, it kept 92 combined spots reserved between both airports for members of Congress. At a rate of $22 per day, that represents almost $740,000 in forgone revenue annually for Reagan National.

3. A free, on-site gym for House members
Not only are members of the House of Representatives treated to their own exclusive gym, but it also comes with flat-screen TVs, a swimming pool, a sauna and stream room, and paddleball and basketball courts. This wouldn't be too bad, except that Congress kept its gym open during all 16 days of the government shutdown, putting the onus of cleaning and maintenance fees squarely on taxpayers.

4. Weakened insider trading restrictions
Despite passing the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, perhaps known better as the STOCK Act in 2012, Congress gutted the primary disclosure component earlier this year. While still making it difficult to make trades on inside information, this means they don't have to publicly disclose their trades and potential insider knowledge. It's laudable they passed the restrictions, but it's hard keep them honest if it's difficult to access the information.

5. Up to 239 days off
According to the congressional calendar released in late 2012, there were 126 congressional sessions on the docket without a single five-day work week, leaving members of Congress with 239 days to work outside of Congress. Sometimes this means working within their home state, and in other cases it can mean a vacation. Members of Congress get the entire month of August off, get two weeks around Easter off, and weren't scheduled to work a single weekend, according to this year's docket. Of course, the congressional docket can be changed and, as we saw as recently as the debt-ceiling debate, members of Congress will indeed work weekends as deemed necessary.

6. Congress receives health-care subsidies under Obamacare
Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, individuals are required to have health insurance or face a penalty that increases each year through 2016. For individuals earning less than four times the annual poverty level (about $46,000) or families earning less than four times the poverty level (close to $92,000), they are eligible to receive a partial or full subsidy on their health insurance through Obamacare's health exchanges. Congress, however, also gets a large portion of its health insurance subsidized by the public on Obamacare's health exchanges despite making more than four times the poverty level.

Source: Tax Credits, Flickr.

7. A better retirement plan
According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the average Social Security recipient is going to net $15,000 a year in benefits while a public workers' pension will average around $26,000. By contrast, a retired member of Congress who's served 20 years will average $59,000 annually in pension benefits. In addition, Congress members (actually all federal workers) have access to the Thrift Savings Plan, a 401(k)-like investment vehicle with fees of just 0.03%. To put that into context, Bankrate notes that this means just $0.27 in fees for every $1,000 for the Thrift Savings Plan, compared with the average 401(k), which charges around $5 in fees for every $1,000! Over a lifetime, that can mean thousands less in fees for congressional employees compared to public- and private-sector workers.

8. Members of Congress fly free
OK, so not every flight is free for members of Congress, but a vast majority of flights between their home states and Washington, D.C., are funded with taxpayer money. What's really unique is that lawmakers are afforded the ability by airlines to book themselves on multiple flights without being charged multiple times because of their very liquid schedules.

9. Death benefits
Should a member of Congress be killed while in office, the surviving family of that member would be entitled to receive at least one year's worth of salary, or a minimum of $174,000. In contrast, family members of soldiers in the United States armed forces who perish while defending our country domestically or overseas are entitled to $100,000 in military death benefits, as well as funeral and burial expenses.

10. A $1.2 million to $3.3 million allowance
Members of the House receive a $900,000 annual allowance for a staff as well as a $250,000 budget for travel and office expenses, paid for entirely by taxpayers. Each senator, on the other hand, gets a budget close to $3.3 million based on figures from the Congressional Research Service. Again, certain companies do offer lavish pay packages and perks to employees so it may be a bit hypocritical to pick on Congress for this one point. However, I'm not aware of any business out there where all employees equally get at least $1.2 million in expenses at their disposal.

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