Military Advantage

Congressional Benefits: Addressing the Myths


Philpott’s Forum presents opinions, insights and questions from readers of Tom Philpott’s Military Update news column.

I read your article on the Department of Defense proposals to squeeze TRICARE and cut other benefits for retired military like me and for future retirees.  Have you ever considered a story on benefits the people receive who now seek to make these cuts?

Members of Congress have a benefit package that is out of this world, and they only have to be in office one term to earn it.  Very few members of the House or Senate have ever served in the military, and yet they have better health care than we do. How can they lower our benefits?

When we joined we were told we would be taken care of for life.  But Congress is doing everything it can to put us on the food lines.


Master Sergeant, USAF-Ret.

Navarre, Fla.


Periodically we need to set the record straight on what members of the U.S. Congress receive in the way of health benefits and retirement.  Many false rumors routinely are spread, particularly on line.

On health care, lawmakers pay far more out-of-pocket than do military retirees.  Regarding retirement, no lawmaker can receive an immediate pension, short of age 62, unless they serve 25 years.  That’s right, 25 years.  Not just a single term, as widely believed.

Here are the facts:

On health care, members of Congress, while serving and in retirement, have the same menu of health insurance options as federal civilian workers. It's called the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan. Depending on the plan they select from that FEHBP menu, lawmakers, like federal civilians, must pay the required premiums, deductibles and co-payments. On average, out-of-pocket costs for FEHBP programs are set high enough to cover 28 percent of plan costs, and premiums rise every year.

What about lawmakers who receive treatment at medical centers around Washington DC?  They are allowed access to these facilities when necessary but their insurance plans are billed for services provided.

Congressional pensions too are financed through a combination of employee and employer contributions. Members elected to office in 1984 or later are covered under the Federal Employees' Retirement System. They pay 1.3 percent of salary into the Civil Service Retirement and Disability Fund. They also pay Social Security and Medicare tax, just as service members do.

Older lawmakers are covered by the older Civil Service Retirement System and subject to an offset feature for Social Security that has been required since 1983 (the "CSRS Offset"), under which they pay 7.5 percent of their full salary toward retirement.

Whether under CSRS or FERS, members of Congress are eligible for an immediate pension only if they complete 25 years of service. If they serve 20 years, they can begin drawing annuities at age 50. They must complete five years to be eligible for any congressional retirement, and those annuities don't begin until age 62. 

Size of congressional pensions is based on years served.  For example, at age 55, a member of Congress who had served 30 years under CSRS receives an annuity equal to 75 percent of average salary during their highest three earning years. The maximum annuity is 80 percent.  A lawmaker who serves five years can retire at age 62 with 12.5 percent of average "high-three" salary. -- Tom Philpott


It’s no wonder so many retired people want to get out of this country.

We spend our life working for good benefits only to have a bunch of bureaucrats want to take them away.  I wish they were paid what we get paid for an entire year and see how they would like counting pennies to get their prescriptions and healthcare in the civilian community.

They suggest we use military health care facilities, but most of us do not retire around military bases.

How many billions of dollars have we spent on silly war games or given away to other countries like the new one now, a billion dollars to the Ukraine.  Wouldn’t that money be better used in our own country?


Via email



Though I know first hand of people abusing the VA disability system for sleep apnea, I can’t really blame them.

I am only 10 years into service but everyone I see getting out is claiming everything they think they have or can say they have.  They start complaining about sleep apnea only a year or so out because they don’t have to wear the CPAP mask.

The reason I don’t blame them is that retirement after 20 years of service isn’t that great.  Think about it: You do physical training three times a week, punishing your knees, shoulders and back and for hardly anything.  If you have a permanent change-of-station move every four years, you can’t buy a house and good luck paying for one on your retirement.  If retired pay weren’t so little, people wouldn’t abuse the VA system so much.

Also, we have to worry about our government possibly not giving cost-of-living increases.

So I say claim it!  It still won’t match what these crooked politicians are getting.


Memphis, Tenn.


I agree with some, not all, of what has been said here about abuse of sleep apnea ratings.  Most of the focus has been on Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and not Central Sleep Apnea (CSA), which can result from combat-related head injuries or pain medications required to treat combat-related illnesses.

Hypertension (HTN) in a young active duty person is a red flag for sleep apnea, regardless of type.  I see often in my practice as a pulmonary, critical care, and sleep provider severe CSA and OSA.  The conditions did not just “show up” within a year of retirement. More often, when I review active duty medical records, I see long standing HTN, microalbuminuria, complaints of fatigue and people who can't lose weight despite concerted efforts.

What I usually do not see is a clinically indicated polysomnography.

Central Sleep Apnea patients are, in general, not obese and do not snore.  CSA is a silent killer, causing hypertension, leading to chronic kidney disease, chronic artery disease, carotid stenosis, arterial fibrillation, diabetes, weight gain, marital problems and career problems for those labeled as “lazy sick call soldiers.”

Nobody gets an “automatic” diagnosis of sleep apnea.  There are specific criteria that require specific severity to warrant CPAP device.

L. S.



I have had sleep apnea most of my adult life and did not know it until recently.  My doctor referred me to specialist to see if I really had it and if it was contributing to my snoring, sinus problems and heart issues.

Turns out I have the type of sleep apnea associated with central nervous system malfunction where the brain just tells my body to stop breathing for awhile.  This changed the type and cost of machine they put me on to a more complex logic computer that would not let me stop breathing.  Before this I had documented times when I would snore vigorously and then suddenly stop, for two minutes or more, then resume.  Scared them to death each time it happened.

Contributing I think is my long career as a fighter pilot where under G loading we sometimes stop breathing. It is kind of a habit and has never disabled me except for a flying physical where all of a sudden they are very worried about it.

I read that it helps the brain work better, and is easier on the heart, if I use the machine regularly so, with protest, I do so.   I actually sleep better without it.  Jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to respond to an alert launch did not help the system either.

There have been occasions when I wake up early in the morning with chest pain.  I think it’s the heart looking for oxygen.   It could very well be that one morning I won’t wake up, and that is why I put up with that stinking machine.

I am 75 now, do engineering work on a daily basis and fly some but not without another pilot, just in case.  I do have a Class 2 physical as long as I stay on the machine, but this is really not warranted.

Sleep apnea has no real effect on me during normal operation.   It was interesting reading your article.

R. F.



Regarding the five percent surcharge levied at commissary stores, I was under the impression that when the five percent surcharge collected at the commissary register was to be used to run the commissaries.  Thus, no need for appropriated funding.

Can you explain this?


Senior Chief Petty Officer, USN-Ret.

Virginia Beach, Va. 

The surcharge monies are to renovate, maintain and modernize current stores and, when needed, to build new stores.  But day-to-day store operations, equipment and staff salaries have for decades required Department of Defense appropriations or tax dollars.  Defense Commissary Agency officials contend they have made store operations as efficient as possible with initiatives over the past decade that saved roughly $700 million a year.  But they still need $1.4 billion in taxpayer support to sustain the value of the popular shopping benefit. – Tom Philpott


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