House Members’ Net Worth Surges, While Public Struggles

Wednesday, 28 Dec 2011 04:39 PM

By Dan Weil

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Public approval ratings for Congress are wallowing in single digits. And this news is unlikely to raise them.

The median net worth, excluding home equity, of House members more than doubled between 1984 and 2009, to $725,000 from $280,000, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Meanwhile, the net worth of the median American family dipped to $20,500 from $20,600, The Washington Post reports.

Clearly members of Congress are feeding at a trough that average Americans aren’t. To some extent, the widening gap in wealth between members of Congress and their constituents just reflects the growing gap in general between rich and poor in this country.

In addition, running a congressional campaign is a lot more expensive now than 25 years ago, making it difficult to run for office if you’re someone of little means.

The average amount of money spent by winning House candidates has quadrupled in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $1.4 million, since 1976, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Ironically, congressional pay has shrunk in the past 30 years – to $174,000 from $215,000 in 1977. But outside income obviously hasn’t.

Back in 1975, Congress included several working-class Americans, including a former steel worker, a barber, a pipe fitter, and a house painter. Some of the average Joes even created a “Blue Collar Caucus.”

To be sure, an income gap always has existed between Congress and the country’s workers. But the chasm has widened considerably in the past 35 years.

Steel worker Gary Myers, a Republican, represented Pennsylvania in Congress from 1975 to 1979. “My mother and I used to joke we were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we rolled into McLean, [Va.,] and we really were,” his daughter Michele Myers told The Post. “My dad was driving this awful lime-green Ford Maverick, and I bought my clothes at Kmart.”

Former Rep. Myers, 74, says his work experience gave him unique insight. “It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,” he told The Post. “I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.”

Now the district is represented by Republican Mike Kelly, a wealthy auto dealer elected in 2010.

He emphasizes the hard work he and his family have put in to make the auto dealership succeed. He thinks that the government should be run more like a business, with less regulation.

Lawmakers’ occupations prior to election affect how they vote, according to a study by Duke University Professor Nick Carnes. In order from most conservative to most liberal: farm owners; businesspeople, such as bankers; private-sector professionals, such as doctors; lawyers; service-based professionals, such as teachers; and blue-collar workers.

Myers isn’t critical of Congress members’ growing wealth. “I guess I could see where someone who made a lot from personal risk-taking and business initiative could have a different outlook,” he said.

“Even if people come with biases, I’m not sure they’re evil biases. I don’t have any problem with someone who has a lot of money. But I don’t have any doubt that my perspective was different from someone who had more money.”


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