Legislators Collect Paycheck From Washington, Pension From Illinois

Three members of Congress - Peter Roskam, Mike Bost and Jan Schakowsky - collect pensions from their time in Springfield; Cheri Bustos' husband earns a public salary greater than $100,000 while cashing a $67,000 pension. It's perfectly legal, but is it good government?

Six term Wheaton Republican Peter Roskam is a powerful figure in the U.S. House, where he chairs a key panel on tax policy and wants to delay Medicare and Social Security benefits for millions of Americans by raising the eligibility age. 

But Roskam - who has criticized his home state as a “fiscal basket case” and marshalled opposition to a federal rescue for Illinois’s troubled pension funds—began collecting his $37,452 annual pension from the state for his years as an Illinois lawmaker at the first legal opportunity last year when he turned 55. 

Roskam is one of three members of Congress from Illinois who had previously served in the Illinois General Assembly and are now getting pensions from the state for their years in Springfield. Like Roskam, all began cashing in on their 55th birthdays under generous rules established by the state legislature long ago for its own members. 

One of them, Republican Mike Bost of Downstate Murphysboro, in 2012 threw a tirade over a pension reform bill on the floor of the Illinois House. It was so spectacular that a video of it went viral on You Tube. The other, Evanston Democrat Jan Schakowsky, once used her congressional office to urge against a reduction in annual benefit increases for public pension recipients in Illinois—of which she was one.

Bost, 56, gets $73,018-a-year in retirement pay from Illinois while Schakowsky, 72, gets $27,888. And that comes on top of the regular $174,000 salaries paid to all members of Congress. Schakowsky and Roskam also have qualified to receive federal pensions after they retire from the U.S. House, while Bost has three years to go in office before reaching that landmark.

A fourth member of the U.S. House delegation from Illinois, Democrat Cheri Bustos of East Moline, also benefits from public pension payments, albeit indirectly. Bustos’ 56-year-old husband is the sheriff of Rock Island County where he earns $109,650-a-year in salary on top of a $67,097 pension for previous service as a deputy in the department he now runs.

The pensions for Roskam, Bost and Schakowsky are paid by the General Assembly Retirement System, which is also known as “GARS”. It is the most resource depleted of the five state-run pension systems, holding enough assets to cover just 13.5 percent of its financial obligations to current and retired lawmakers.

In addition to legislators, those five systems extend retirement benefits to suburban and Downstate teachers, university workers, judges and general state employees. But the legislative system allows the earliest retirement dates coupled with the most generous formula for calculating payments.

The pension for Bustos’ husband, Gerald, is paid through a more financially sound retirement fund covering municipal employees

 Cheri Bustos
   U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos

Roskam, Bost and Schakowsky all declined to answer questions from the Better Government Association about their pensions.

A spokesman for Rep. Bustos, Jared Smith, said the lawmaker’s husband earned his pension. “He put his life on the line for more than 30 years as a street deputy, an undercover drug officer and as the founder and first commander of the Rock Island County Bomb Squad,” Smith said.

Former state lawmakers, like most other public pensioners in Illinois, benefit from an annual three percent cost of living bump in retirement pay after they turn 60 even though inflation for many years has been well below that.

That three percent annual increase, cited by critics as a big cost driver for pension systems in crisis, applies not just to those already retired but to all future retirees who joined the state payroll prior to 2011.

Of the three former Illinois lawmakers, Bost spent the most time in Springfield—20 years - before shifting to Congress in 2015. Given that longevity, his $6,084 monthly pension from Illinois is much larger than that of Roskam or Schakowsky. 

Mike Bost 
   U.S. Rep. Mike Bost

The  2012 video rant that gained Bost notoriety came in response to an ultimately unsuccessful plan introduced by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to shift expensive pension obligations for downstate and suburban teachers away from the state and on to local school districts.

When Democrats tried to force a vote without allowing debate or amendments, Bost went ballistic.

“These damn bills that come out here all the damn time come out here at the last second and I've got to try to figure out how to vote for my people," he screamed, tossing papers in the air and slapping at his microphone. "…You should be ashamed of yourself. I'm sick of it.”

The following year, he also voted against reducing the automatic 3 percent annual increase in pensions that was part of a broader pension reform bill that passed but was later struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Bost’s pension is calculated at the maximum rate, 85% of his final salary - a rate that teachers will never get, regardless of retirement age or years of service. The maximum rate for teachers’ pensions is 75% of final pay.

Roskam, a member of the U.S. House since 2007, has worked his way into the leadership ranks of majority Republicans in Congress and sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee which presides over tax and entitlement policy. As such, he holds considerable sway over GOP efforts to restructure federal retirement and health insurance benefits, and he has been a consistent voice in efforts to revoke Obamacare. 

 Peter Roskam
   U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam

Expressing concern for long-term solvency of federal programs for retirees and the elderly, Roskam also backs proposals to raise the age of eligibility for drawing Social Security benefits as well as qualifying for Medicare.

When it came to drawing his own Illinois pension, however, Roskam wasted no time taking advantage once he became eligible after turning 55 in September 2016. For his 13 years of service in both the Illinois House and Senate, Roskam recently began collecting an Illinois pension that starts at $3,128-a-month but will grow over time with automatic cost of living add-ons that kick in once he turns 60.

In Congress, Roskam frequently holds up Illinois’ fiscal crisis as a cautionary tale illustrating the need to bring pension entitlements under control.

In 2011, Roskam organized a letter signed by Republican leaders in the U.S. House as well as all GOP U.S. House members from lllinois warning then-Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois legislature that financial help to resolve the state’s pension crisis would not be forthcoming from Washington.

“We can say with clarity: there will be no legislative bailouts from the U.S. House of Representatives,” Roskam’s letter declared.

In a 2015 Congressional hearing on retirement issues, he again used the Illinois pension system as the poster child for government-run plans that “are absolutely failing working families today”

Running for re-election last year, Roskam called Illinois a “fiscal basket case,” whose example motivates him to find ways to cut costs and lower federal debt.

In addition to his pension, Roskam gets another benefit from the state: a $150 monthly bonus for declining free health insurance offered to state pensioners. Roskam could afford to forgo the insurance because he had the choice of being covered by the federal government’s plan.

Schakowsky served eight years in the Illinois House before leaving in 1999 to assume her  congressional seat. But years later, when lawmakers in Springfield were weighing the proposal to trim the size of annual increases for public pensions in Illinois, Schakowsky nonetheless used her position in Washington to try to drum up opposition. 

 Jan Shankowsky
   U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky

She issued a press release from her congressional office urging state lawmakers to reject the change.

“For the many teachers and other public employees who don’t collect Social Security, the size of the cuts will take away the retirement security they have earned over a lifetime of work,” she said in the statement, which made no mention that she would also be impacted by such a change.

When Schakowsky first began collecting on her state pension it was worth $18,439 annually. Now, thanks to the 3 percent annual cost of living adjustment, it has grown almost 50 percent to $27,888.

During her time in Springfield, Schakowsky made $47,897 in individual contributions toward her pension, state records show. She received all of that back and more within three years of retiring in 1999, collecting a total of $388,000 in pension benefits.

PUBLISHING PARTNER: Read this story in Crain's Chicago Business

About the Authors
  • Chuck Neubauer

    Chuck Neubauer is a special contributor for the Better Government Association.
  • Sandy Bergo

    Sandy Bergo is a special contributor for the Better Government Association.