It Hurts to Lose a Seat in Congress. But after the Hurt Comes the Relief Package

Thursday, September 18, 2014

I have never met John Tierney.  I have never had a reason to ask for a meeting with him or a member of his staff for one of our clients. Tierney holds a federal office, United States Representative, and we do most of our work at the state and municipal levels of government.

However, I happen to know a lot of persons who know Tierney or have dealt with him on various matters through the years.  He’s been in the Congress since 1998. They all say Tierney’s a good, down-to-earth person, a man you can trust, a guy who delivers on what he tells you.  They also say he’s easy to take, no fathead.

I take as Exhibit A of Tierney’s “good guy-ness” that young, fresh-faced, sincere, teetotaling Joe Kennedy the Third was out campaigning for him just a little while ago.  Kennedy didn’t owe Tierney anything.  Nor did he need him to keep moving up the ladder.

As everyone who follows politics knows, the voters of the Sixth Massachusetts District gave Tierney the boot nine days ago.  He lost the Democratic nomination for re-election to his House seat to Seth Moulton.  The margin of defeat was decisive.
Today, September 18, as Tierney celebrates his sixty-third birthday, he is likely reflecting upon both his past and his future.  Unlike a lot of persons his age who’ve been forced from a job, he has some good options for future employment.  He’s a member of the bar and could restart his private law practice in Salem, his hometown, without much difficulty.  He could also do what a lot of former lawmakers do these days: become a lobbyist.  Or he could simply decide to retire when his term’s up.  He could do what Al Pacino, age 73, said in a recent article in the New Yorker he has no interest in doing: “Smell the golf balls.”

Tierney qualifies for the kind of pension and other retirement benefits that the vast majority of Americans will never attain.*  By my rough, non-expert calculation, which is based on the average annual salary for a U.S. representative, $172,443, and on Tierney’s 16 years in the Congress, he could collect a federal pension amounting to $49,663 every year for the rest his life.
The average 63-year-old man in the U.S. today can expect to live to age 84, according to the Social Security Administration.  If Tierney starts collecting his federal pension upon leaving office in January and if he lives for 84 years, his total pension income would come to $1,042,923, (21 times $49,663).

It’s also possible that Tierney qualifies for monthly payments from Social Security and from a federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). 

If, upon taking office in January, 1998, Tierney had joined the TSP, the federal government would have contributed the equivalent of 1 percent of his salary to his account every year whether or not Tierney himself made contributions to it.  If Tierney has contributed, the government would have equally matched those contributions, up to 5 percent, every year.
So, for example, if Tierney contributed 5 percent of his annual gross salary to a TSP in 2013, his personal contribution would have amounted to $8,622, (based on the average annual salary of U.S. reps), and Uncle Sam would have matched that contribution and added another 1 percent -- the “give-away” portion built into the system.  His accumulated retirement savings for just last year would have, in that scenario, totaled $18,968.73.

Don’t forget health coverage. 
As a retired Congressman, Tierney may obtain insurance for him and his wife for the rest of their lives through the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that fewer than one in five persons working in the private sector today qualify for a pension; thirty years ago, that situation was reversed: more than four in five qualified.
It’s tough to lose an election.  Given the way so many voters said afterward that Tierney had been around long enough and that it was time for a new face, his defeat on September 9 was no doubt particularly painful. 

I’ve heard former elected officials describe their losses as a kind of “public death.”  Think about it.  The average person who gets downsized doesn’t have to get up the next morning to find his picture on the front page of the Boston Globe.
I wish John Tierney the best.  I won't hold it against him if he takes all the pension money, retirement account payouts, Social Security checks, and health coverage he’s entitled to by law.  I would not have the necessary wealth, nor would I be so self-less or patriotic, as to refuse those things if I was in his place.

On balance, we have to say that the electorate is a kindly and generous beast.  Else why would it countenance so much relief to those who must endure the demise of their public lives?
*Members of Congress, representatives and senators alike, need to serve only five years in order to qualify for a pension.






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