Viral Facebook post: Retired U.S. presidents and members of Congress collect full salaries “for life."
PolitiFact's ruling: False
Here's why: Elected officials’ post-retirement benefits have long been the target of false or misleading claims.
An old post with more such claims is regaining traction on Facebook.
"Salary of retired U.S. presidents … $450,000 FOR LIFE," the image in the post reads.
Originally published in 2019, the post goes on to quote other salaries "for life" for lawmakers: $174,000 for House and Senate members; $223,500 for the speaker of the House; and $194,400 for other congressional leaders.
It continues with a comparison:
"Average salary of a soldier DEPLOYED IN AFGHANISTAN … $38,000," the image reads. "Average income for seniors on Social Security … $12,000. I think we found where the cuts should be made!"
The post, which people were sharing and commenting on as recently as Jan. 13, was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.
The post quotes numbers that align with the current salaries of officials in office. But it makes a big error by attaching the phrase "for life." Elected officials at the federal level can qualify for pensions after they leave office, but they’re not entitled to their full salaries for life.
What do the benefits actually look like for former presidents and members of Congress? Here’s what we found:
The president earns $400,000 a year while in office, plus a $50,000 expense allowance. The Former Presidents Act of 1958 established that former presidents are entitled annually to an amount "equal to the annual rate of basic pay, as in effect from time to time, of the head of an executive department" — that is, the base pay of a cabinet secretary, not their presidential salary.
The total benefits may be worth more than the "$450,000 for life" that the post claims, but the annual pension for ex-presidents is $226,300.
Former members of Congress
A 2018 Congressional Research Service report responding to persistent misinformation spelled out the rules on lawmakers’ pay and benefits.
"Members of Congress receive salaries only during the terms for which they are elected," the report said. "They do not receive salaries beyond their terms of office."
Congressional salaries haven't changed since 2009. In 2022, most senators and representatives collect an annual salary of $174,000. The speaker of the House gets paid $223,500, and the Senate president pro tempore and the majority and minority leaders of the two chambers earn $193,400 each year while they’re in office.
Representatives and senators become eligible to receive retirement benefits only after serving in Congress for at least five years. That’s nearly one full term for a senator, or more than two terms for a House member.
Those who have completed the minimum service could begin collecting their pensions at age 62, according to the Congressional Research Service report. Those with a longer record of service can start collecting sooner.
"The amount of the pension depends on length of service, as measured in months, and the average of the highest three years of salary," the report explained. But the benefits cannot exceed 80% of that person’s final salary.
Based on the current salaries, the annual pension would be capped at $178,800 for a retiring House speaker, and for $139,200 for rank-and-file members. On average, they receive less than that.
As of Oct. 1, 2018, 617 retired members of Congress were receiving pensions "based fully or in part on their congressional service," according to the Congressional Research Service.
About half of them retired under the Civil Service Retirement System, which existed before 1984, and were receiving an average annual pension of $75,528. The others retired under the Federal Employees’ Retirement System and were receiving an average annual pension of $41,208.
Other numbers in the post
The salary for active-duty military members varies based on rank, experience and other factors, so it is unclear exactly how the post arrived at the $38,000 "average."
A private with less than two years of experience makes $21,420 in basic pay, while a sergeant with six years of experience makes about $38,246, according to the U.S. Army. Basic pay does not include "bonuses, allowances and other benefits."
The average monthly benefit paid to retired workers relying on Social Security income is $1,555, according to the Social Security Administration. That amounts to a yearly income of about $18,660 — or 55% more than the Facebook post claims.
A viral image shared on Facebook claimed that former presidents and members of Congress collect salaries "for life."
Former members of Congress do not receive full congressional salaries for life. After serving five years in Congress, former members become eligible to collect a pension. The amount of the pension varies based on length of service, but it would be less than their salary when they were in office.
Presidents earn $400,000 a year when they’re in office, not for life. Former presidents are entitled to a pension equivalent to the salary of a cabinet secretary; the current rate is $226,300 a year.
We rate this claim False.
Facebook post, Jan. 3, 2019
PolitiFact, "Can members of Congress retire with full pay after just one term?" Jan. 11, 2013
PolitiFact, "Do members of Congress have to pay back student loans? Yes." Jan. 11, 2011
PolitiFact, "Email message says members of Congress get a full pension for serving just one term," May 29, 2011
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking a viral post about impeachment and Trump’s post-presidency benefits," Jan. 11, 2021
PolitiFact, "Fake news: First grandma Marian Robinson is not getting $160,000 annual pension," Jan. 10, 2011
PolitiFact, "Claim about congressional pensions is wrong, once again," May 4, 2020
Reuters, "Fact check: Inaccurate claims about salaries for U.S. presidents in retirement, Congress members, army soldiers and senior citizens," Aug. 10, 2020
Congressional Research Service, "Congressional Salaries and Allowances: In Brief," April 11, 2018
Congressional Research Service, "Retirement Benefits for Members of Congress," Aug. 8, 2018
Congressional Research Service, "Salaries of Members of Congress: Recent Actions and Historical Tables," July 29, 2021
CNN Business, "Here's how much Trump's presidential pension is worth -- if he keeps it," Jan. 20, 2021
International Business Times, "What Will Be Janet Yellen's Salary As Biden's Treasury Secretary?" Nov. 24, 2020
Vox, "Here are the perks Trump will get as ex-president," Jan. 20, 2021
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This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Are retired presidents, legislators collecting salaries 'for life'?