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The U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (AP) The U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (AP)

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (AP)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy February 1, 2021

Facebook post misleads on congressional health care, benefits

If Your Time is short

  • Congress does not get free health care. Members can get coverage through the Affordable Care Act, with the government kicking in to cover a share of the cost.

  • Lawmakers are eligible after five years of service or federal employment for a pension plan that is more generous than most private employers offer.

  • Lawmakers don’t have 67 paid holidays, and it’s difficult to discern how much vacation time they get, given the nature of the job. They can take sick days.

Facebook users are recirculating an old post that accuses members of Congress of enjoying more luxurious employment benefits than their constituents do.

"Take a look at the congressional benefits," says the Oct. 10, 2019, Facebook post, which was shared thousands of times. "Free health care, outrageous retirement packages, 67 paid holidays, three weeks paid vacation, unlimited paid sick days; now THAT’S welfare."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

The post mirrors other claims PolitiFact has fact-checked about lawmaker salaries, which haven’t increased since 2009, and retirement benefits.

We reached out to Demian Brady, director of research at the National Taxpayers Union, and Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, to understand what benefits actually come with a seat in Congress.

"A lot of this stuff is an exaggeration," Strand said of the Facebook post.

On health care

The Facebook post claims lawmakers get "free health care," but Brady said their coverage would be better described as "highly subsidized." It’s not free.

Members of Congress are eligible to get insurance through DC Health Link, the exchange marketplace for Washington, D.C., under the Affordable Care Act. The FAQ page on DC Health Link’s website lists "members of Congress" among its eligible recipients.

The federal government kicks in 72% of the premium costs, Brady said. That lines up with what the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2017 report

"They get subsidized just like every federal employee," Strand said, adding that members can also opt to get coverage through a spouse’s employer-based insurance if they prefer.

For comparison, employers in the U.S. contributed, on average, roughly 71% of the premium for family coverage and roughly 83% of the premium for single coverage in 2020, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual survey of private and non-federal public employers.

On retirement

Whether congressional retirement benefits are "outrageous," as the Facebook post claims, is a matter of opinion. But they are "generous compared to the private sector," Brady said.

Members of Congress — save for the few elected prior to 1984 — belong to a pension program known as the Federal Employees’ Retirement System. The program is available to every federal employee, not just lawmakers, as PolitiFact previously reported. And it augments other benefits available to seniors.

"They do pay Medicare, just like every other American," Strand said. "They do pay into Social Security, and they do have this federal retirement."

The FERS program qualifies members for a pension after five years of service, with previous work as a federal employee counting toward the vesting period. Those lawmakers must contribute part of their congressional salary into the pension plan in order to be eligible for the benefit.

To collect, the lawmaker must be age 62, or be at least age 50 with 20 years of federal service, or be any age with 25 years of service.

The size of a lawmaker’s pension depends on several factors, including the length of their service. But Brady said the pension for eligible members pays two to three times more than pensions offered to similarly-salaried workers in the private sector.

In the private sector, about 67% of workers have access to defined-benefit or defined-contribution retirement plans, and about 51% participate, according to the Congressional Research Service.

On time off

The Facebook post claims that members of Congress get "67 paid holidays, three weeks paid vacation, (and) unlimited paid sick days." That’s misleading.

The 2021 legislative calendar listed by House Majority Steny Hoyer, D-Md., includes only 10 federal holidays that all federal employees get off — not 67. 

Defining vacation days, meanwhile, is tricky. Members of Congress split time between Washington and their homes states or districts, and they may still be working during recess periods, so time away from Washington shouldn’t be confused with vacation, Strand said.

"There is no provision for vacation days," Brady added. "When Congress is not in session, members often work in their districts, but they make their own schedules."

As for sick days, members can take time off when they are sick or for other reasons. 

As PolitiFact has reported, members who are absent from votes often enter statements in the Congressional Record to reflect how they would have voted if they had been present. (Since May and throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the House has used a proxy voting system that lets absent members authorize a colleague to cast their vote for them.)

There’s no limit on sick days or time off for members, Brady said, noting that former Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois missed the better part of a year after suffering a stroke in 2012.

"Usually when people are running for president, they don’t show up for Congress at all, for months on end," Strand said.

Private industry workers get an average of eight paid holidays, seven paid sick leave days and 11 paid vacation days per year after one year of work, according to a March 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Our ruling

A Facebook post said congressional benefits include "free health care, outrageous retirement packages, 67 paid holidays, three weeks paid vacation, unlimited paid sick days."

The post gets more details wrong than right. Lawmakers can take absences when they are sick, and they do have generous pension plans. But they do not get free health care, and they do not take 67 paid holidays. There isn’t a provision governing their vacation days, either.

We’ll rate this post Mostly False.

Our Sources

Facebook post (archived), Oct. 10, 2019

DC Health Link website, accessed Jan. 29, 2021

Congressional Research Service, "Worker Participation in Employer-Sponsored Pensions: Data in Brief," Dec. 1, 2020

Kaiser Family Foundation, "2020 Employer Health Benefits Survey," Oct. 8, 2020

Bureau of Labor Statistics, "National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2020," March 2020

Congressional Research Service, "Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress," Aug. 8, 2019

The Congressional Institute, "Busting Congressional Myths," Sept. 27, 2018

Congressional Research Service, "Health Benefits for Members of Congress and Designated Congressional Staff: In Brief," Jan. 13, 2017

PolitiFact, "Claim about congressional pensions is wrong, once again," May 4, 2020

PolitiFact, "Did Matt Gaetz and Ted Cruz oppose paid sick leave but take it for themselves?" March 17, 2020

Email interview with Demian Brady, director of research at the National Taxpayers Union, Jan. 29, 2021

Phone interview with Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, Feb. 1, 2021

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Facebook post misleads on congressional health care, benefits

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