Closing a corruption loophole

December 6, 2023

Sun Sentinel

Sen. Rick Scott

December 6, 2023

Those who serve in Congress should be held to the highest standards, reflecting the immense responsibility entrusted to our public servants. But while Americans would rightly hope that the consequences of violating this trust would be severe, thanks to a loophole in the law, some former members of Congress convicted of corruption and fraud continue to benefit from taxpayer-funded pensions.

This is why the No Congressionally Obligated Recurring Revenue Used As Pensions To Incarcerated Officials Now (No CORRUPTION) Act is a vital ethical reform. The bipartisan No CORRUPTION Act would close a major loophole in federal law that allows convicted politicians to continue collecting federal pensions. Befitting its common-sense nature, the Senate unanimously passed the bill. It awaits a vote in the House.

The loophole stems from well-intentioned laws passed over a decade ago. In 2007, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) after controversy involving more than a dozen former lawmakers convicted of serious criminal charges who were still eligible for taxpayer-funded pensions worth a combined total of nearly $800,000.

HLOGA specified that conviction for several corruption-related crimes would lead to forfeiture of a congressional pension. Five years later, Congress built on HLOGA with the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act (STOCK) of 2012. This law added additional crimes that would strip members of their pension.

Under those laws, however, former members of Congress convicted of a felony forfeit their pensions only upon final conviction, which means only after exhausting their appeals. This provides an opportunity for convicted former members to file one appeal after another, dragging out the legal process for several years. All the while, they can continue to collect their pensions even after they have been sentenced to federal prison.

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation first uncovered this loophole after confirming that former Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) remained eligible for his estimated $55,000 pension — plus annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) — one year after he was convicted in 2016 for racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and falsification of records.

Since passage of HLOGA and the STOCK Act, no members of Congress have been confirmed to have forfeited their pensions. More recently, former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) was convicted of an insider trading scheme that netted him a $350,000 windfall. On Sept. 19, 2023, Buyer was sentenced to 22 months in prison, and his lawyer said that they plan to appeal his conviction. For his time in the House of Representatives from 1993 through 2011, his annual pension could be worth up to $48,000, plus annual COLAs.

The most recent member to find himself in legal trouble is Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who was indicted for corruption in September. A follow-up indictment in October for operating as a foreign agent adds to the charges that could strip his estimated $70,100 congressional pension.

Laws cannot make retroactive changes to congressional perks, but going forward, the No CORRUPTION Act would cut off pension-eligibility upon initial conviction. This could finally end taxpayer payments to corrupt politicians. The bill would also ensure that convicted former members of Congress who receive a presidential pardon would not get their pensions unless a court overturns their convictions.

In addition to protecting taxpayers, the reform includes a very important protection for the legal rights of the convicted. If an appeal is successful in overturning the conviction, the congressional pension held in abeyance would be retroactively paid in full.

Making Washington work for American families requires real reforms that end the current dysfunction, which is why it is an encouraging achievement that every member of the Senate joined together unanimously to pass this common sense legislation. Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) recently introduced the No CORRUPTION Act in the House with bipartisan support. It should be a no-brainer to move forward on this bill to hold elected officials accountable and protect taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

Republican Rick Scott represents Florida in the United States Senate. Demian Brady is vice president of research at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation.