You Only Wish You Could Live Like a Congressional Fat Cat

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Urgent Reader Poll:
Should Congress Eliminate Its Tax-Payer Funded Perks... And Live Like The Rest Of Us?

Washington lawmakers live a life most Americans can only dream of.

They have a minimum salary more than triple the average worker, three-day work weeks to go with month-long vacations, and special tax breaks that would make most CEO's jealous.

It's no wonder Congress has lost any sense of the true value of money or a hard day's work.

This lack of fiscal leadership is part of the reason why the U.S. is now more than $17 trillion in debt and needs to borrow 46 cents out of every dollar it is spending this year.

And it's a big reason why Congress can never seem to figure out how to solve any of America's most pressing economic problems.

You won't believe how well these folks live - and every dime that pays for this lavish lifestyle comes straight out of taxpayers' pockets.

Congressional Perks - Compensation and Basic Benefits

Let's start with annual pay.

Each of the 535 members of Congress earns at least $174,000 a year (those in leadership positions earn more). Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported last fall that median household income in the U.S. fell 1.5% to $50,054 in 2011 - the fourth consecutive annual decline and the seventh decline in the past 10 years.

On top of their pay, each member receives an allowance to cover such things as the salaries of their staff, office furniture and basic travel expenses. Members of the House get $1.52 million per year, members of the Senate, $4.2 million.

In the days of paper ledgers, such expenses were recorded in detail, so taxpayers would know that a lawmaker spent $500 on a desk, for example. Today, the expenses are recorded in a database that the public can access over the Internet, but most expenses are described vaguely with such terms as "office equipment."

While members of Congress do not get free healthcare - they pay about 28% of the total premium - they do get to choose from an array of 10 different insurance plans, just like any other federal employee, and have allowed themselves to opt out of Obamacare.

Plus, legislators have on-site medical care via the Office of the Attending Physician, located on the first floor of the Capitol building. Better still, they have access to medical treatment at any military hospital - and can get free outpatient care at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital.

And when it comes time to retire, few workers will enjoy benefits as fine as those bestowed on members of Congress.

For one thing, lawmakers qualify for a pension, a benefit that has been all but eliminated for most American workers. Long-serving members can qualify for pensions that exceed the salaries of most workers.

For example, a member who retired at the end of 2012 with 20 years of service would qualify for a pension of $59,160, according to the Congressional Research Service. Better still, that pension will be adjusted for inflation - almost unheard of in the private sector.

Lawmakers can participate in the federal employee 401(k)-style "Thrift Savings Plan" that matches the first 5% of their contribution. And on top of that, they also qualify for full Social Security benefits.

Mind you, all this tax money is going into the pockets of a group of people who already are extremely well off. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires. Some are worth tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions.

In fact, the net worth of every member of Congress added together tops $4.5 billion, for an average net worth of $8.41 million.

Meanwhile, the median net worth of the average American household is $66,470.

Is Bernanke Greedier Than Congress? Go Here to See His Deal With The Devil

You'll Never Get These Perks

As extravagant as the basic congressional perks are, they're just the beginning.

The most lavish benefits include:

Full-time pay, part-time hours: You'd think that working in Congress would require long hours, but it's really a part-time job. The Congressional 2013 calendar has only 126 working days scheduled. That's an average workweek of about 2.5 days.

Free travel: Members of Congress have several means of getting free travel. They can use money from their annual allowance, which typically pays for trips back to their home district. But a bottomless

Treasury account pays for "fact-finding trips" to almost anywhere in the world. Spouses are welcome. Incredibly, each member gets an allowance of up to $3,000 per day for each trip. Lawmakers typically pocket any money left over. Finally, members can also accept free trips from private sponsors if it has to do with official congressional business. Such trips can include not only coach rate airfare, but food and lodging as well. And again, spouses are welcome.

Special tax breaks: Most legislators need a home away from home somewhere in Washington, so clearly they need a $3,000 tax deduction for "living expenses." Meanwhile, few of the other lucrative benefits they get are in any way taxable.

Airline privileges: Some may know that representatives have guaranteed free parking at two major Washington areas airports, Dulles International and Reagan National. But they also have hotlines to the major airlines to speed the reservation process. What's more, lawmakers typically reserve seats on multiple flights but only pay for the seats they use.

Gym memberships: Senate and House members each have their own exclusive gym that is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. House members pay just $20 a month in dues; senators pay $40 a month. It's unclear what it really costs to operate the two facilities; the expenses are buried in other budgets and Congress has refused to provide more details.

Private elevators - and a subway: Perhaps legislators need the gym because they don't get enough exercise by walking. They have their own personal subway to shuttle them between their offices, committee rooms and the Capitol. They also have members-only elevators with staffers running ahead of them to push the buttons so they can hop right on without waiting.

Free mail: The "franking" privilege allows members of Congress to send out official mail to their constituents on the taxpayer dime. For the rest of us, the cost of a first-class postage stamp just went up by another penny to 46 cents.

"You get the feeling like they just don't get what's going on out there in the real world when they have all these perks at their fingertips," Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, told ABC News. "The gyms and the hair care and all the parking facilities that they have ... They're really living a different life than the average American."

Meet Congress's Best Friend

For all their faults, members of Congress are elected democratically in a vote eligible to members of their representative states.

Compare that with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. In 2006 he was appointed by one person, President George W. Bush, and then confirmed for a second term by President Obama in 2010.

Congress could care less that Bernanke didn't have to endure a campaign trail and doesn't worry about breaking promises. He does.

For all the grief they give each other, Bernanke and Congress share a lot in common.

For one, they both continue to get rich while millions of Americans struggle to get by. In addition to big banks, Bernanke has helped Congress far more than the average homeowner. 

If Bernanke really cared about the little guy, would he leave his position, one that controls the value of every dollar and loan in the country, right before the economy blows up again?

Save Yourself From Bernanke's "Wealth-Trap"

Within a few weeks – maybe less – the next crash is coming... and it's all been engineered by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. Luckily, there's still a way to save yourself and profit like the pros through the mess. Go here to see how.