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Tom Feran
By Tom Feran January 11, 2013

Can members of Congress retire with full pay after just one term?

Political trends come and go, but the classics endure.

Such is the case with a chain email PolitiFact Ohio received to start the new year. When we received a nearly identical version a couple of years ago, we said it could be "a new classic of the genre."

The email claims that Congress gets special perks nobody else does; complains that a complacent media ignores the news, and requests that recipients of the email forward it on to 20 more people.

We examined one of the special perks mentioned in the email, that "the staffers of Congress family members are exempt from having to pay back student loans." The claim is confusingly worded, but we assumed that it referred to relatives of members of Congress and Congressional staffers.

We gave the statement a rating of Pants on Fire because it was (and is) ridiculously false. Relatives of members of Congress and Congressional staffers have to pay back their loans like everyone else.

But the still-circulating email contains another claim that several readers have asked about in recent days: that members of Congress can "retire with the same pay after only one term."

This claim is a classic in its own right. Our friends at the urban legend checker say it has been circulating in various chain emails since at least 2000.

The claim means that rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives would receive full pay of $174,000 per year, for the rest of their lives, after serving as little as two years.

Nice work if you can get it. But members of Congress can't.

A report on "Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress," prepared in November by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, outlines how pension benefits are calculated.

The key provision: no member of Congress is eligible for any pension unless he or she has served in Congress for at least five years. (Senators serve six-year terms; House members must seek reelection every two years.)

To collect, a congressman or senator must be age 62, or be at least age 50 with 20 years of service, or be any age with 25 years of service.

Under the most recent pension program, adopted in 1984, the size of a pension is based on the highest three years of a member's salary, the number of years of service and a multiplier, which is 1.7 percent for the first 20 years of service and 1.0 percent for subsequent years.

Here’s an example, using a typical 25-year rank-and-file member who retired this year. The pension would be the sum of two calculations. First, multiply $172,443 [the average salary over the last three years] times 20 years times 0.017. Then, multiply $172,443 times 5 years times 0.01 and add that number to the first calculation. The total: about $67,250 per year.

A three-term congressman (or one-term senator) who has now reached retirement age would be eligible for an annual pension of $17,588 for six years of work. That's generous, but not close to full pay.

Federal law prevents members of Congress from getting full-pay retirement when they leave office. The report says, "By law, the starting amount of a member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80 percent of his or her final salary."

Under the formula, it would take 67 years of service to hit that limit.

So the email saying that members of Congress can "receive full pay retirement after serving one term" is blatantly bogus. It's never full pay and the only one-term members who would be eligible for any pension would be senators. rated the pension claim as False. Our colleagues at have also debunked the claim -- which, over the years, has been accompanied by assertions that members of Congress don't pay into their Social Security (they have since 1984) or that they don't contribute anything toward their retirement (they do).

For a bogus claim that’s been circulating at least 13 years, and for anyone who still spreads it, we’ll break out the matches. Pants on Fire!

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