We Can't Find Out How Much Retired Federal Workers Get Paid, and That's a Problem

What's retired IRS chief Lois Lerner's pension? No one, besides Lerner, knows. Adam Andrzejewski and Rep. Ron DeSantis want to find out.


Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom

Most news coverage about pension issues revolves around the states.

Partially, that's for good reason. States are dealing with a collective shortfall of more than $1.75 trillion (and probably more, because of how those liabilities are calculated), and some states truly are screwed by the over-generous, under-funded retirement promises they've made to public workers for the past few decades.

Partially, though, the state focus is because we just don't know much about the federal government's pension situation.

Sure, it's known that the various federal employee pensions systems covering civilian and military employee benefits have an unfunded liability—that's the gap between what a pension system owes to beneficiaries and what assets it has available to pay them—of about $3.5 trillion (equal to about 20 percent of America's annual GDP), according to Moody's.

We also know that the feds pay roughly $75 billion to civilian retirees and their survivors, and roughly $50 billion to military retirees and their survivors, each year. For comparison, there's only two states (New York and California) with annual budgets larger than that.

And we also know that all the complicated math beyond those pension payouts, the long-term costs, and unfunded liabilities, is calculated inside a hollowed-out mountain in western Pennsylvania, in a bunker designed to survive a nuclear apocalypse. No, really, that's true.

Still, when it comes down to who-gets-what, we don't know much of anything at all. Federal courts have long held that pension payouts to retired federal workers are secret, reasoning that disclosing that information would be a violation of pensioners' privacy.

By contrast, most states make that information public. Doing so gives taxpayers (who are funding a not insignificant portion of the pension bill) some transparency about how their dollars are being used, but it also lets watchdog groups look for potential pension abusers.

Adam Andrzejewski, founder and CEO of Open The Books, one of those watchdog groups that tracks pension spending at the state level, says that needs to change, because you can't reform what you can't see.

"If active salaries (by name) are disclosed, why would posting federal retiree pension amounts, service credits and contributions be an invasion of privacy? The same privacy law underlies both records," Andrzejewski wrote Tuesday in an op-ed at Forbes.

Open The Books is calling for Congress to change the rules that keep federal pension payouts secret. Andrzejewski told Reason that his organization is working with Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida) to introduce legislation to give taxpayers more information about federal pension payouts. Elizabeth Dillon, DeSantis' communications director, declined to comment Tuesday on the details of the bill, which is not yet introduced, but she confirmed to Reason that it would increase transparency in federal pensions.

Earlier this year, DeSantis reintroduced his End Pensions In Congress Act, which would end pensions for all future Members of Congress as well as those currently serving who are not yet vested into the congressional retirement plan. DeSantis does not accept a federal pension, Dillon said.

Those transparency laws don't necessarily fix America's pension problems, but they help improve the debate—or at least catch individual fraudsters. Transparency at the state level helped Open The Books expose fraudulent pension payouts in Illinois, California, and at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Those same laws making pension information publicly available is why we know about retired municipal officials getting pensions seven times larger than the median household income in the town where they live, and how we know that the most lucrative pension in California during 2015 belonged to Michael Johnson, the former Solano County administrator who got a $388,407 pension that year.

When it comes to federal retirees, though, it's all a guessing game.

How big of a pension is Lois Lerner, the former Internal Revenue Service chief, getting? Andrzejewski points out that estimates by two Washington think tanks vary by as much as $52,000 and no one knows for sure—except Lerner.

"The American people deserve to see the granular details of who's receiving what, when and after how long," he wrote Tuesday at Forbes. "It's the only fair way to debate taxpayer-guaranteed job benefits."

NEXT: Trump Tax Return Origin Questioned, the Equal Rights Amendment Is Back, Why the Alt-Right Loves Jane Austen: A.M. Links

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The military retirement is pretty simple, 50% of base pay after 20 years, 75% of base pay after 30 years. I think there has been some changes made lately but I doubt if its much different

    Here is the base pay chart for 2017. So if you know what rank someone retire at and how many years they served you can figure out retirement pay. This does not count various special pay such as flight pay, sea pay, danger pay so someone who retires at 20 gets less then 50% of their total pay they were getting since they only count base pay…..ay-charts/

    This does not count medical care.

    1. Civilian pensions are a bit more difficult, but only because there are two separate systems in place right now. The old system (CSRS) is a pension system similar to that of the military, but that only applies to people who were working for the Fed government prior to 1987. Everyone since then falls under FERS.

      FERS has two portions – a pension and a 401k. The pension is easily calculated: average of top 3 years salary x 1% x number of years in the job. So, if someone had a average top 3 salary of $100k and worked for the federal government for 30 years, their pension would be $30k a year (less if you opt to have spouse survivability). The 401k is a matching system, where the government matches up to 5% of your salary in contributions.

      That’s it. Not very difficult to calculate, and as far as I know the pension is based off of the straight salary – I know people who wanted to deploy to Afghanistan for their last 3 years, but balked when they found out the hazard pay/post differential wouldn’t factor into their pension calculation.

      1. “”””wouldn’t factor into their pension calculation.”””

        This is the problem with many though not all State and Local government retirements, they do factor in all sorts of special pay and overtime to the retirement paycheck

        Some manage to get more in retirement pay then what their regular pay was on their last year.

  2. If they have nothing to hide…

  3. Legislation titled “End Pensions In Congress Act” would be EPIC if passed. Catchy title, but no chance of getting anywhere.

    1. Oddly enough, it’s only if epicact doesn’t work that you vomit.

    2. It would certainly be a nice start on civil service reform. Put them (at least government new hires) in the same 401k boat as us peasants.

    3. How about a bill that says members of Congress shall only have access to the lowest-tier HMO health plans, with no subsidies or deductible offsets. We just need to find out a clever expansion for the “FYTW Act”.

  4. How do Reason’s government-employed chatters feel about full disclosure of their wages, benefits, retirement plans?

    1. I have no problem with it. If I can’t make a rational argument for my pay, I shouldn’t be in the job.

      (Disclosure – I am a GS-14, step 6, in the “Rest of US” locality: $118k)

    2. If anything, government wages and salaries SHOULD be disclosed publicly for obvious reasons – especially pensions.

      1. Yup. My boss knows my salary; I should know the salary of every pubsec worker I pay for.

    3. So, kind of like the General Schedule that already exists and is publicly available information?

      1. It goes a bit farther than that. I know in years past, there was a look-up function on the Washington Post where you could enter someone’s name and it would show you their salary, bonuses, etc. So you didn’t even have to know what their GS rating was to find out the info.

      2. Having access to the formula tables that theoretically inform pay and benefit scales is different from having a list of what each employee/retiree actually draws. The former is de jure transparency, while the latter is de facto.

        1. Fair enough. I don’t think any of it should be private. You are free to make private income outside of government and to have it kept private by the IRS; but, what the government pays you is of public interest.

          1. If you are a government employee with private income, it should be fully disclosed to avoid conflict of interest.

    4. All Texas state employees have their salaries posted online.

      1. Same with Georgia – I assumed that was the norm for states, just like a mandated balanced budget.

        (The dirty little loophole is the members of quango agencies and boards and commissions and crap that aren’t technically government employees. And the regulated utilities that are – c’mon – government enterprises.)

        1. The next step is to get people to actually give a shit. They’re jelly of private enterprise fatcats but when your town commissioner is raking in half a million a year it’s more like “how do I get in on that action”.

    5. The taxpayer is the government worker’s employer. Why should the employer of the bureaucrat, politician, functionary, seatwarmer not know their salary?

    6. Already retired and no problem.

  5. We Can’t Find Out How Much Retired Federal Workers Get Paid, and That’s a Problem

    “I can look that information up for you sir, I have it on a hard drive right here… aaaandd it’s gone.”

    1. *goan

  6. Shhhhh.

    It’s a secret.

  7. well that is depressing.

  8. Here, inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers. But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.

    Unf—–gbelievable. Even the WaPo is unimpressed by the government incompetence on display – and that’s saying something.

  9. There is a searchable database of federal employees:

    Not every fed is listed. Some are redacted for security reasons.

  10. It is about 100,000 a year give or take. Why isn’t she on Social Security like the people that have to pay her salary

    1. Because as a federal employee she was exempt, and sjnce she paid a lower % into the pension plan she’s entitled to a higher payout than SS max benefit. It makes perfect sense.

  11. Lerner was only at the IRS for 12 years why is she getting a pension at all?

  12. For comparison, there’s only two states (New York and California) with annual budgets larger than that.

    The article buried the lead. Consider the relative size of the governments of California, New York, and the federal government. California has a $158 billion budget and 321,000 employees. New York has 623.000 state employees and a $149 billion budget. The federal government has 4.1 million employees (including the military) and a budget of $4.1 trillion. So both New York and California managed to spend more money on state employee pensions than the federal government despite the federal government having in the case of California over 12 times the number of employees and 25 times the annual budget and in the case of New York six and a half times the number of employees and 27 times the annual budget.

    Set aside the issue of federal pensions for a moment. The pension numbers for New York and California are just astounding. They are a fraction of the size of the federal government yet spend more money on pensions, even though the federal government has by any reasonable definition a generous pension program.

    1. Those figures for NY and CA are total expenditures, not pension expenditures.

      1. Yeah. I noticed that after I posted it. But even if you put in the right numbers, the comparison is still pretty epic. California spends $34 billion a year on state pensions or a little less than half what the Feds do, despite having 1/12th the number of employees and 1/25th the total budget.

        New York spent $18 billion on pensions last year or about 1/4th the amount the feds did despite having 1/6th the number of employees and 1/27th the total budget of the feds. New York is pretty bad but California is just astounding. They must be giving every pensioner a six figure income.

        1. Yeah, I saw your post below and if your figures are right that does sound excessive… Is it possible the number of employee figures don’t include teachers, cops, and such?

          1. Here is where I got the number


            Maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps that is why the NY number is so much higher. I can’t tell if that includes cops and teachers and such. Even if it doesn’t and the number is more in line with NY, it is still appalling.

            1. You could try reading the article. California has 1.7mil active pension members and about 700k inactive. And the 75bb spent on fed pensions was for 2012. Do you think it went down or up in the last 5 years?

  13. What’s retired IRS chief Lois Lerner’s pension? No one, besides Lerner, knows

    That can’t be true.

    1. It is and is not. It is true insofar as you can’t get an exact number from the Feds. They won’t tell you “last year we paid Lois Lerner X amount.” It is, however, deceiving. Anyone can figure out what Lerner is making. Both her final position, final base salary and length of service are public knowledge as are the rules governing pensions. With that information, you can easily deduce what her pension is.

      The article acts like the rules governing these pensions are not known. And that is just not true. From a taxpayer perspective, it doesn’t matter if I can find out exactly what Lerner is making. What matters is what are the rules that govern what everyone in her position is making. And those are public.

      1. That was kind of what I was getting at. I have no doubt that information is… difficult to find. But the idea that NO ONE KNOWS what her pension is just… yeah.

        1. It is not even that hard. Lerner was an SES working in Washington DC. The pay tables for that are at the OPM website. I am going to assume the old bat was a senior SES. She started in government sometime in the 70s. That means she came in under the old system before FERS. That was when retirements were really generous. Lets say she retired after forty years service, which is probably about right. I don’t know when she came into government service. But according to her Wiki she started at DOJ before going to the FEC in 1981. Under the old CRS system you got 1.5% of your high three for the first five, 1.75% for the next five and 2% for every year after that. So add that together and you get, 7.5 + 8.75 + 60% or 76.25% of her high three base salary, which assuming she was a senior SES $185,100. That means her retirement is a bit over $141,000 per year. That is outragous. But, no one who hired on after 1984 and the coming of the FERS system would have anything approaching that generous.

          This shit is not hard. I don’t know why the author acts like it is.

  14. In 2016, the federal government collected 3.27 trillion dollars. That means the $75 billion it paid in pension benefits represents two percent of its income. That is a comparison that matters. In comparison, California spent $34 billion on pensions last year, which is 21% of its revenues.

    Whatever pension crisis the federal government is having, it is not even in the same league as what the states are facing. Even if pension obligations tripled, it still wouldn’t be even close.

    1. Government unfunded mandates aren’t like your unfunded mandates.

      1. At the state level, they are. At the federal level, they are a bit different because the feds print their own money. The states do not and unlike the feds really can go bankrupt. At the state level, they are just like my unfunded mandates; as good as my ability to avoid bankruptcy and make good on them, whatever that is.

        1. Kind of. The Feds print money and if the Feds have a sympathetic administration running it, they can print money and give it to the state to keep them solvent.

          1. That is no different than me finding a sympathetic relative to come and bail me out.

            1. You’re correct about that. But that’s between you and your relative. And if your relative bails you out, it doesn’t reduce the value of my savings.

              1. Bailing California out only does that if you assume the feds wouldn’t have spent that money on something else had they not bailed CA out, which is a pretty big assumption.

                In any case, I don’t think the feds are going to bail the states out and those blue state pensions are going to end up being effectively worthless.

          2. No. The Fed prints the money, and the govt borrows it, at interest.

            1. Pad in the same dollars the Fed printed. It’s genius.

      2. As others have said, the Fed has proven, over the past 8 years, that it is ready, willing, and able to print as much money as it takes to keep those pensioners from getting angry. In all of this discussion, however, no one is talking about the really big pot of Federal pensioners – those on Social Security, which transfers over $1trillion each year from the people working hard to the leisure class. The politicians don’t want all those grannies to get angry, because they have demonstrated that they are ready, willing, and able to vote out of office any politician who threatens their way of life.

        I feel sorry for some of the state workers – the ones with the small pensions. The police who worked triple time in their last year to get pensions that are more than their working salaries should get buzz cuts.

    2. No, the feds spent over 125bb on pensions last year. And I can’t find any source that says california spent 34bb on pensions last year. The closest I’ve come is an la times sentence than it spends about 5bb.

      That fact that a quick search can’t tell me how much ca spends on pensions is disturbing to say the least.

      1. Try reading the article. Then follow the link in the article. When you do, you will find this…..California

        Total contributions:
        Employee contributions:
        Government contributions:

        So, it is 24 billion. I misread the link. As far as the federal government, I didn’t include the military because the state doesn’t pay military retirements. But fine throw it in. That means the feds spend 3.8% of their revenues on pensions. Contrast that to California that spends 15% with the corrected number. It still isn’t even close. If California has a pension crisis, and it clearly does, that in no way means the feds have one as well. The difference in numbers is exponential.

  15. Carousel or nothing. Their choice because I’m generous like that.

  16. Federal worker retirement under FERS (beginning in 1987) is about .75% times highest 3 years pay excluding any overtime times number of years employed. They also have Thrift Savings which functions like an IRA which is matched to 5%, but employee can put in up to 10%. Those working before 1987, get up to 80% of top 3 years after 40 years service, again without overtime. Cops & firefighters might have different rules

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.