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CONGRESS BUILDS PENSION BENEFITS WHILE OTHER WORKERS GO WITHOUT

WASHINGTON - Two sets of rules reign in America: Those that Congress lives under, and those for everyone else.

Take the issue of congressional pensions, which are ballooning out of sight at the very time that less than half of all American workers are so covered.The wave of retiring and soon-to-be defeated members of Congress owe a debt of gratitude to taxpayers - who are funding this millionaire's club of congressional pensioners.

Roughly 300 current members of Congress will be showered with lifetime benefits of $1 million or more, while almost 100 will enjoy benefits exceeding $2 million. By comparison, a whopping 58 million private-sector workers have no pension and will have to rely on Social Security and personal savings alone.

The average Social Security check is $622 a month or $7,464 a year. Government economists say that 5.5 percent of the workers eligible for private pension plans can't afford to join.

Some background: The so-called Ethics Reform Act of 1989 raised the pay for Members of the House to $129,500 per year. (Since 1980, all members of Congress have seen their salaries more than double.) But as ethics reform packages go, this was a bait-and-switch.

An obscure clause tucked away in the 1989 act will prove to be the most lucrative for the estimated more than 150 members who will leave Washington by choice or by the ballot box in January.

The clause was Congress' device to defend their own pensions against the ravages of inflation with annual cost of living adjustments - the kind that it has been stingy about granting others. Less than 10 percent of private sector pensions lack COLAs because they would bankrupt private sector companies. No such worry burdens Congress about the taxpayer.

Moreover, members can start collecting a pension at any age after they complete 25 years of service, and at age 50 with 20 years. Less than 1 percent of workers with private sector pensions are eligible to enter their "golden years" at age 50 by collecting retirement benefits. Some 90 percent are eligible at age 65.

The average congressional pension is about $60,000 a year, compared with the median private pension of $4,380. The median annual private pension for those over 65 is approximately $3,500.

What that means is that the average congressional pensioner will receive about three times more than the average working American earns.

Former Rep. Hastings Keith, R-Mass., who retired in 1973, has already registered his first $1 million in pensions and is on his way to doubling that.

Keith is bent on reform - so long as the sacrifice doesn't start with him. He refuses to forsake his own federal pension. "I'm not trying to cut my own throat," he told our associate Ed Henry. "What I'm trying to do is save the system."