In Congress, the wealthy protect the wealth
Who are those people, the top 2 percent on America's income pyramid, for whom congressional Republicans have gone to the wall? Many readers of these words might not know anyone in that income category but every member of Congress knows many people at the top, because at least 261 members of the 535-member Congress are millionaires.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan organization that tracks money in politics and governance, reached that conclusion based on financial disclosure statements filed by senators and representatives in 2009.
Those reports can be misleading. They do not include the value of the members' base congressional annual salary of $174,000. They do not include the value of the member's primary residence. And, because the value of assets fluctuates, it is reported in a range from lowest possible value to highest. So the wealthiest member of Congress, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, has a net worth of between $156 million and $451 million, an average of $303.5 million.
According to the center, 55 members of Congress reported average net wealth greater than $10 million, and eight reported wealth of more than $100 million.
For representatives, average wealth in 2009 was $766,000; for senators, $2.3 million. Their personnel wealth increased by about 16 percent over the course of the Great Recession. (In terms of the average of the high and low numbers for reported assets, Sen. Bob Casey was 90th in the 100-member Senate at $398,000 and Sen Arlen Specter was 43rd, at $3.53 million. Rep. Chris Carney was 298th in the 435-member House at $339,000; Rep. Paul Kanjorski was 72nd at $4.3 million.)
The center also analyzed investments listed by the members, reporting that 69 had investments in Bank of America, for example, one of the giant banks that Congress voted to bail out with taxpayer funds under the TARP program. Many had investments with major government contractors - 82 reported investments in GE, for example. And, many others had interests in entities that were subjects of congressional inquiries - notably 20 who had investments in oil giant BP.
Significant was as common among Democrats as Republicans and the center did not suggest that it drove any particular voting pattern.
The high average wealth among members of Congress does indicate, however, the role of money in politics and that it is very difficult for someone of modest means to reach and remain in high office. More elusive is the question of the impact of the high personal wealth on governance, but when nearly half of an organization of 535 people are millionaires, it raises questions of that organization's perspective.