What has a $3.5 trillion unfunded liability, manually calculated on paper inside a Pennsylvania mountain, and costs taxpayers more money annually than the entire state budget of Florida? Answer: Federal employee pensions.
Fact: Federal court rulings state that disclosing the pension amounts of retired congressional representatives and senators violate their privacy rights.
Forcing open the federal pensions will take an act of Congress. Citizens should demand it. At the state level, 32 states – including the union strongholds of California, Illinois and New York – already opened their books on public pensions.
Consider federal employee-prosecution-escape-artists like the former IRS chief Lois Lerner who invoked her Fifth Amendment protections during Congressional testimony. Wouldn’t it be nice to see her pension information? Citizens deserve to know Ms. Lerner’s annual pension. Estimates by two Washington think tanks vary by more than $52,000 annually, or nearly $2 million in lifetime payout.
The American people deserve to see the granular details of who’s receiving what, when and after how long. It’s the only fair way to debate taxpayer-guaranteed job benefits. But, federal law characterizes the federal pension payouts to retired public employees as “private information.”
At the state level, our organization at OpenTheBooks.com demonstrated the public interest benefit of revealing pension data.
Even in Illinois, where the #1 manufactured product is corruption, transparency law extends to public employee pensions. This is how we caught a pair of union bosses who substitute taught for one-day in the public schools, retired and collected their $1 million lifetime pensions – despite a state law expressly designed to stop them!
A former deputy chief of staff to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was supposed to receive a $20,000 pension. Instead, the retired deputy cashed checks totaling $137,000 per year. It was three years and $374,000 in overpayment before a good-government pension hawk exposed the mistake.
California has transparency of public pensions. Recently, our auditors at OpenTheBooks.com found 21,862 retirement pensions that exceeded $100,000. These ‘highly compensated’ retirees cost taxpayers $2.8 billion annually via CalPERS – the USA’s largest pension fund with $301 billion in assets. Just one county – Riverside County – has 461 six-figure retirees and the top 12 retirements each exceed $200,000 per year.
New York has transparency of public pensions. With the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, we unearthed pension abuse inside the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Fellow Stephen Malanga exposed a police lieutenant who retired in 2013 with an annual salary of $129,000 and then began collecting a pension of $172,000. An assistant airport operations manager retired at a salary of $89,000, but soon began collecting a pension of $103,000. An electrician quit with a base salary of $76,000 and started collecting a pension of $79,000.
The federal retirement systems cost taxpayers billions of dollars. In 2012, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management admitted that 21,000 retired federal employees collected pensions exceeding $100,000. Yet, since the macro-disclosure, agencies have gone silent. Over the last five years, the number of six-figure pensions likely doubled or tripled, but we’re left in the dark.
It’s time open the books on federal pensions. Consider the following from 1993:
National Taxpayers United filed a request for former U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler’s retirement benefits. The Office of Personnel Management’s rejection stated: “it is our policy not to provide pension rates for individual Members of Congress because to do so would violate their privacy without shedding light on how the Government conducts its business.”
Public sunshine on a retirement payout to a former U.S. Senator is a violation of his privacy. What about our right to know how government is spending our money?
In 2013 and 2016, our organization requested the full list of individual retirement annuity payouts amounting to roughly $80 billion. In rejecting our request, the Obama Administration wrote that it was ‘clearly an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.’
Still, our request for the active salaries of the 2 million disclosed federal employees was fulfilled, with seven-year histories. We mapped these salaries and bonuses on our interactive platform at OpenTheBooks.com.
If active salaries (by name) are disclosed, why would posting federal retiree pension amounts, service credits and contributions be an invasion of privacy? The same privacy law underlies both records.
The public policy implications for federal taxpayers are obvious. After all, you can’t reform what you can’t see. The only way to stop corruption — legal or illegal — is to expose the payments.