Senate turbulence prompts questions about pensions, candidates, confirmation dates
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
No sooner had former Representative Barney Frank publicly declared his interest in an interim appointment to replace Senator John Kerry than did members of the public begin asking if it wasn’t really just some secret gambit to boost his congressional pension.
The short answer is, no.
Frank has told colleagues that he never paid into the congressional pension system, meaning he will have to rely on personal funds, Social Security benefits, and any 401(k) savings he accumulated for his retirement.
That, and the tens of thousands of dollars he stands to gain in the coming years from public speaking engagements, book deals, and teaching gigs.
As Frank put it Friday on MSNBC, he will soon “basically run my mouth for money.”
But even if he were to be eligible for a congressional pension, the effect that five extra months of service in the Senate would have - after 32 years in the House - would be minimal.
First, Frank would not stand to be paid any more in the Senate than he was in the House. Congressional salaries are set by law, and members of both chambers get paid the same amount.
The “fiscal cliff” deal that Frank and the rest of Congress approved last week blocked a scheduled $900 cost-of-living increase members were slated to receive.
Their salary remains a $174,000 per year, where it has been since 2009.
Second, while members who are part of the pension system pay just 1.5 percent of their salaries into the program, the growth in their retirement benefit trails off sharply after they have reached 20 years of service - a point Frank passed over a decade ago.
Third, any incremental retirement benefit Frank could gain would be far less than the public speaking fees he will have to forgo if he were to be tapped for the interim Senate appointment.
The former congressman told the Globe during an interview Friday he already has speeches scheduled in the coming months, which he will cancel if he returns to Capitol Hill.
While Representative Edward J. Markey has been out front by declaring he will be a candidate in any special election needed to to replace Kerry, two House colleagues - Representatives Michael E. Capuano and Stephen F. Lynch - have held back.
Capuano, a Democrat from Somerville, has been the more forthcoming of the two, saying he is weighing a run and will announce his decision in due course. Capuano even stated, after Markey tried to bowl him and Lynch over with a series of high-profile endorsements two weeks ago, that he wouldn’t be stymied by the party establishment.
“If I make this run it will be the same way - from the streets up, not from the elite down,” Capuano vowed, before an aide promised a final decision “soon.”
Lynch has issued no such statements. Instead, the South Boston Democrat has preferred to play the inside game by calling elected officials, party activists, and labor leaders across the state to privately gauge the scope of any coalition he could assemble.
When the Globe twice contacted his office recently and asked to speak with the congressman about the subject, a spokeswoman said she couldn’t reach him each time.
All that could change this week: The House is not in session, meaning the members will be around Massachusetts.
Markey’s team has already hinted that a public event where he formalizes his own candidacy could come as early as this week or next.
Markey disputed a report in the Boston Sunday Globe’s “Political Intelligence” column which referenced unnamed friends as saying Markey was rankled by the possibility of Frank gaining the interim appointment, for fear of having his own special election candidacy overshadowed by such a large personality.
Spokeswoman Giselle Barry said the idea is “completely false.”
She added in a statement: “Representative Markey has full confidence that Governor Patrick will appoint the best person to represent Massachusetts before the Senate seat can be permanently filled.”
Kerry’s office similarly shot down other chatter about why the senator took the unusual step of issuing a statement supporting Markey’s candidacy even before there was an opening, and while congressional colleagues like Capuano and Lynch were still weighing their own campaigns.
The suggestion was that, in exchange for the nomination, the White House had pressured Kerry to make an early endorsement, the goal being to clear the field and give the Democrats the best possible chance of retaining the seat in the special election.
One potential Republican opponent is former Senator Scott Brown, who was defeated for reelection in November but stunned Democrats by winning the seat in the first place during another special election in January 2010.
Kerry aides, however, say the White House didn’t influence the decision.
The senator, they say, made the endorsement based on his own feelings, as well as the belief that he couldn’t delay much longer as he readies for what must legally be an apolitical posting as secretary of state.
Bolstering that argument is a key fact: the newly composed Senate is now split 53 Democrats to 45 Republicans, a net gain of two seats for the Democratic Party.
Even losing Kerry’s seat to the GOP would have no material effect on passing Obama’s legislative proposals.
The timing for Kerry’s confirmation hearing as secretary of state, meanwhile, remains something of a mystery, not for any lack of eagerness by the senator.
He was at the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom last week, getting the first of the organizational and policy briefings he will receive as an incoming secretary.
While President Obama announced last month that Kerry would be his choice to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the White House still hasn’t formalized the decision with an official nomination. That is expected sometime this week.
But Kerry’s consummation of that post will only follow his confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the full Senate itself.
And neither his hearing, his committee vote, nor his Senate vote can happen until after the body takes care of some initial business for the newly constituted 113th Congress, including passing an organizing resolution.
That codifies committee memberships and an array of other technical matters, but it has been held up by Democratic threats to push for changes in the Senate’s filibuster process.
Republicans have used the filibuster - or the mere threat of it - to strengthen their hand as the chamber’s minority party, and the GOP vehemently opposes any changes to it.
Democrats threatened to make changes last week, during the day new senators were sworn in, but they recessed before any final vote was taken. Final action was deferred until Jan. 22 - the day after the public presidential inaugural.
The dispute has the potential to stall the rest of the Senate’s business, including Kerry’s confirmation hearing.
If, as expected, Kerry is confirmed as secretary and resigns his Senate seat, fellow Democrat Elizabeth Warren will instantly vault from junior senator to senior senator.
It largely is a distinction without a difference, but in the clubby ways of the upper chamber of Congress, it carries some added clout.
First, the White House typically defers to the senior senator when it comes to who gets the first call about a major state policy change or decision.
The senior senator is also often the first signatory on a letter from the Massachusetts congressional delegation to the public, government agencies, or foreign leaders.
Second, the senior senator accompanies any newer member to their swearing in by the vice president, who, technically, is also the president of the Senate. Kerry stood behind Warren last week as Vice President Joe Biden delivered her oath.
In Warren’s case, she could soon not only escort the appointee who will replace Kerry on an interim basis, but also the winner of the special election that would replace him permanently.
Third, and more importantly, the senior senator typically convenes the committee that screens candidates for federal judicial appointments by the White House.
While the final call is the president’s, the senior senator can shape the ultimate appointment through the composition of the selection committee and the final choices it recommends.
The senior senator is similarly given a louder-than-equal voice in the nomination of US marshal and US attorney candidates.
During Saturday’s Massachusetts swearing in ceremony for Warren, Kerry joked about the disparity in the durations he and Warren will have served as the state’s No. 2 member of the Senate.
“I was the junior senator for 26 years!” he said to laughter from the crowd at Roxbury Community College.
Then, turning serious, he noted the death that elevated him to No. 1.
“There isn’t a person in this room who wouldn’t give everything for me to still be the junior senator to Ted Kennedy,” Kerry said.Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.