CNN Exposes 'Lavish' Government Pensions despite Economic Crisis

February 26th, 2010 11:13 AM

All this week CNN has been taking a look at “Broken Government” and in some cases the cable channel deviated from the mainstream media norm by providing a critical view of government.

That was the case on Feb. 23 when Wolf Blitzer and Lisa Sylvester scrutinized lavish pension-plan and retirement-packages for government officials during “The Situation Room.”

“Many Americans will spend half a lifetime or more working for the same company only to find little or no safety-net when that job ends,” Blitzer said to begin the report. “Others, especially those on Capitol Hill don’t have that problem.”

“This is certainly nice work if you can get it,” reporter Lisa Sylvester noted, alluding to the troubling disparity. “Lawmakers on Capitol Hill get automatic pay-raises and they never have to worry about their retirement, but that’s not the case for many middle-class Americans.”

How to get by after retirement is a question that weighs on many citizens. CNN found a former auto parts worker who had his pension cut 30 percent by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation after his company Delphi went bankrupt and his pension was taken over by the government.

While the economy and many Americans struggle to find or keep jobs and pay their bills, the public-sector has been rapidly expanding. The U.S. is also facing a fiscal crisis with the national debt currently above $12.4 trillion, but that hasn’t stopped “generous” pensions for former government officials.

“They can draw on their pension beginning at age 50; depending on the years of service they can get as much as 80 percent of their final salary, there are cost-of-living-adjustments added on, and they’re still eligible to receive Social Security.”

Citing the analysis of the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), Sylvester used Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., as an example of broken government. NTU, a nonpartisan taxpayer group that has worked under the guiding principle "This is your money and the government should return it to you" since its inception, found that Dodd will have a starting annual pension of $125,500 when he retires next year.

Sylvester interviewed NTU’s vice president for policy and communications Pete Sepp about what he considers the root of the broken system.

“Unlike even the state and local pension plans, the federal Congressional pension system is simply a direct line into the taxpayer’s wallet,” Sepp told CNN. “There’s no investments that need to be made, no fund balances they get worried about – whatever the liability is for a given year – taxpayers cough up the money for it.”

CNN even found one rare politicians who has fought for pension-reform. Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., told CNN: “I elected to refuse the pension, on the ground that taxpayers are subsidizing my salary now. I figure when I leave they’ve taken good care of me – but let me do the best I can once I leave after the service in Congress has been accomplished.”

The Congressional pension system is not alone in its excess. The state of California also promised lavish pensions for other public-employees. Currently the state is on the hook for $100 billion to $300 billion in unfunded pension and health care liabilities on top of its projected $25 billion budget deficit.

Lisa Sylvester closed her “Broken Government” piece with a story about Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who was found with $90,000 stashed in his freezer.

“And amazingly, up until recently, even if a Congressional member committed for a crime, they could still get their full pension. But a 2007 law barred members convicted of felonies from receiving their pensions. Still, there are a number of members of Congress like Congressman William Jefferson – his corruption offenses took place before that year – so he will still receive a pension paid for by the taxpayer.” 

Throughout the CNN series “Broken Government” has examined ballooning cost overruns, blocked confirmations, gerrymandering, Obama’s broken quid-pro-quo promise regarding lobbyists, federal inefficiencies and state budget gaps just to name a few.

But some in the series have hypocritically called for a government solution to the problem being discussed as Kyra Phillips did on Feb. 25. The first segment of the series longed for the return of better days when unions were in power and a call for economic security.