Privileges and pay
Congresspersons enjoy the privilege of being free from arrest in all cases except for treason, felony, and breach of the peace. This constitutionally-derived immunity applies to members during sessions and when traveling to and from sessions. The term arrest has been interpreted broadly, and includes any detention or delay in the course of law enforcement, including court summons and subpoenas. The rules of the House strictly guard this privilege; a member may not waive the privilege on his or her own, but must seek the permission of the whole house to do so. Senate rules however are less strict and permit individual senators to waive the privilege as they choose.
The Constitution guarantees absolute freedom of debate in both houses, providing in the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution that "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place."
Accordingly, a member of Congress may not be sued in court for slander because of remarks made in either house, although each house has its own rules restricting offensive speeches, and may punish members who transgress them. Obstructing the work of Congress is a crime under federal law and is known as contempt of Congress. Each branch has the power to cite individuals for contempt but can only issue a contempt citation––the judicial system pursues the matter like a normal criminal case. If convicted in court, an individual found guilty of contempt of Congress may be imprisoned for up to one year. The franking privilege allows members of Congress to send official mail to constituents at government expense. Though they are not permitted to send election materials, borderline material is often sent, especially in the runup to an election by those in close races. Indeed, some academics consider free mailings as giving incumbents a big advantage over challengers.
From 1789 to 1815, members of Congress received only a daily payment of $6 while in session. Members began receiving an annual salary in 1815 of $1,500 per year. In 2006, congresspersons received a yearly salary of $165,200. Congressional leaders were paid $183,500 per year. The Speaker of the House of Representatives earns $212,100 annually. The salary of the President pro tempore for 2006 was $183,500, equal to that of the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. Privileges include having an office and paid staff. In 2008, non-officer members of Congress earned $169,300 annually. Some critics complain congressional pay is high compared with a median American income of $45,113 for men and $35,102 for women. Others have countered that congressional pay is consistent with other branches of government.
Congress has been criticized for trying to conceal pay raises by slipping them into a large bill at the last minute. Others have criticized the wealth of members of Congress. Members elected since 1984 are covered by the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Like other federal employees, congressional retirement is funded through taxes and participants' contributions. Members of Congress under FERS contribute 1.3% of their salary into the FERS retirement plan and pay 6.2% of their salary in Social Security taxes. And like Federal employees, members contribute one-third of the cost of health insurance with the government covering the other two-thirds. The size of a congressional pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest three years of his or her salary. By law, the starting amount of a member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary. In 2006, the average annual pension for retired senators and representatives under CSRS was $60,972, while those who retired under FERS, or in combination with CSRS, was $35,952.
Congresspersons are encouraged to journey on fact-finding missions to learn about other countries and stay informed, but these outings can cause controversy if the trip is deemed excessive or unconnected with the task of governing. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported lawmaker trips abroad at taxpayer expense, which included spas, $300-per-night extra unused rooms, and shopping excursions. Lawmakers respond that "traveling with spouses compensates for being away from them a lot in Washington" and justify the trips as a way to meet officials in other nations.