The secrecy surrounding federal government pensions

  • 12 February 2018
  • NormanL
Don't weep for Andrew

As official Washington continues its swirl over memoranda, we were interested to read this item about one the players in the Russia/Hillary email/your-scandal-here story. It's about Andrew McCabe, the former number two man at the FBI who is leaving under a cloud regarding his role in the Clinton email saga. Or more specifically, it's about the taxpayer-funded pension he will get once he leaves the Bureau next month:

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe has left the bureau under a cloud, but for him there’s a silver lining: his federal pension, which could provide him a lifetime payout of $1.9 million.

Yet taxpayers will never know for certain how big a pension McCabe gets, nor can they learn about pensions due any other federal employee, including members of Congress. The Office of Personnel Management keeps that information secret, exempting it even from freedom of information requests.

Adam Andrzejewski, president of the watchdog group Open the Books, said opening pension records to public scrutiny is “the next phase of the transparency revolution.”

"Citizens should not have to have a search warrant to see how their money is being spent,” Andrzejewski said. Besides, he added, “You can’t reform what you can’t see."

Like disgraced -- and now retired -- IRS bureaucrat Lois Lerner, McCabe will ride into the sunset with generous pension, and health care. Your tax dollars help fund it, and you are also on the hook for the $3.5 trilllion in unfunded federal pension liabilities. But the specifics of who gets how much is a state secret. It's not for lacking of trying:

Various organizations have tried for decades to force the personnel office to cough up the numbers. The National Taxpayers Union sought access to congressional pension data in 1993. In both 2013 and 2016, Andrzejewski tried again to get the pension data.  The OPM declined, citing a 1989 federal appeals court ruling that releasing the names and addresses of federal annuitants "would result in a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy."

Government watchdogs say this secrecy is troubling for many reasons.

First, they note the privacy argument makes little sense since the federal wages and bonuses many employees receive are public records. Open the Books has mapped wages and bonuses for 1.97 million of the nation’s 2.7 million civilian federal workers by name and ZIP Code (McCabe’s salary figures were not available).

Without elaborating in an email to RCI, an OPM spokesman said, "The privacy interests differ for those who are current federal employees vs. those who are now private citizens.”

Watchdogs also argue that pensions should be public records because they are a large part of the federal budget. The Congressional Budget Office said pension payments to the nation’s 2.6 million retired civilian federal workers and dependents totaled more than $91 billion in 2016.

Like many public and private pension systems, the federal version doesn’t have enough assets to cover its promised payouts. A 2016 Moody’s report said the unfunded liability for those federal pensions tops $3.5 trillion, roughly 20 percent of U.S. GDP. Moody’s also noted that the unfunded liabilities of the Social Security system reach nearly $13.4 trillion, or 75 percent of GDP.

Finally, watchdogs argue that public pension transparency is especially important when it involves officials who have left under a cloud, such as McCabe. He departed abruptly under pressure Monday amid congressional questions about his role in the Hillary Clinton email and Trump-Russia investigations.

We understand why the federal government would want to keep this sort of information under wraps. Were it made public, taxpayers might take offense. Or, in the case of congressional pensions, they might toss the incumbents out of office and replace them with those who have a mind to strip the gilding off those pensions.

But so long as the data is secret, all watchdogs can do is continue to agitate...and get behind legislation by Rep. Ron DeSantis that would bring all the government' pension secrets out into the open. Needless to say, his congressional colleagues aren't too keen on his bill. But if they hear from people like you, perhaps they might be prodded to do the right thing.