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What Separates You from Congress? About a Million Dollars.

J. Mijin Cha

What separates Congress from people like you and me? About a million dollars, among other things. A new report from the Center for Responsive Politics finds that for the first time in history, a majority of Congressional members have a net worth exceeding $1 million. To put that in context, millionaires make up only roughly 4.5 percent of the total American population, but they make up over half of those elected to represent us. So, who exactly are they representing?

Not surprisingly, Congress advances the priorities of the affluent and corporate interests over those of ordinary Americans. Political scientists have shown that the priorities of low-income Americans are largely ignored, even when they have strong public backing. A prime case in point is the minimum wage. Over 70 percent of Americans support increasing the minimum wage. Yet, raising the minimum wage has continually been a heavy lift in Congress over the past twenty years. At the same time, the capital gains tax rate, which impacts a much smaller, much richer population, was cut several times during the same period. (Before it was finally raised last year.)

As I told Paul Blumenthal of the Huffington Post, this news coming out now when Congress is refusing to extend unemployment insurance is so telling. Aid for the long-term unemployed is not a priority of the wealthy, who simply don’t need it. Yet, it is one of the few remaining lifelines for those that have been out of work for over six months. The long-term unemployed make up over 37 percent of the unemployed population.

Contrary to conservative talking points, cutting off aid won’t make people motivated to find a job--these workers are already motivated but are still unable to find work. What it will do, however, is further push them further into debt, increase economic inequality and make finding a job that much harder. By cutting off aid, Congress creates even more hurdles for the unemployed.

CRP’s report also points out that many members of Congress saw their wealth increase while in office. In 2012, 48 percent of Congressional members had a net worth exceeding $1 million. In just one year, that number grew to a majority. While Congress is taking steps that will likely force more people into poverty, their own pocketbooks are swelling. Is this what our representative democracy has become?