Sort by

Why Congressional Wealth Matters

An income gap exists between Congress and the general population, and the gap is getting bigger. The Center For Responsive Politics documents the increase of congressional wealth over the past few years. In effect, Americans are now being represented not by their peers; but by the 1 percent.

Yet as members of Congress have gotten richer, more Americans have fallen down the economic laddres. According to Pew Research Center, “in 2011, the middle-income tier included 51% of all adults, down from 61% in 1971.” Unless a substantial number of the formerly middle class joined congress, they are getting poorer.

Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic, thinks this doesn’t matter. Writing late last year, he acknowledges that "Congress is a part of the 1%," but he questions the significance and the necessity of "a shared economic experience between Americans and lawmakers."

Thompson takes the example of welfare. It would be one thing if you could prove that richer congress people care less about welfare, but according to Thompson,

[Y]ou can't say Republicans' wealth makes them less likely to support higher spending on the poor, because congressional Democrats are actually richer. . . if there is a relationship between wealth and support for welfare, it's a complicated relationship.

But the question is not whether congresspeople support spending for the poor or not, it is whether or not they pay more attention to furthering their own agendas. Thompson’s choice of example is significant. Welfare is not something from which a congressperson stands to benefit in any immediate or obvious manner.

The biggest counter example is tax policy. Is it a coincidence that the U.S. tax code has become ever friendlier to millionaires during a time when many of the lawmakers showering perks on this group are themselves millionaires? Perhaps, given that ideology is clearly a big driver of tax policy. But it should be noted that numerous wealthy members of Congress are reaping huge financial gains from today's low tax rates. A Congress of middle class and working class represenatives might see things differently. 

There are plenty of other, more particular areas where wealthy lawmakers seem to angle to make themselves even wealthier. Take Republican Representative Rick Berg's position on real estate. Berg "personally owns apartment buildings run by Goldmark Property Management Inc.," says Politico. He also co-sponsored a bill, SB 2403, back in 2003.

Representative Lonny Winrich warned the Bismarck Tribune that the bill would "allow political parties to create 'a real estate empire' and make money as landlords." The bill, Winrich continued, would enable campaigns to "construct office buildings with corporate contributions, rent extra space to companies and pocket the money."

The correlations Thompson willfully downplays are myriad if you pay attention to who benefits from exactly what and why, instead of picking an issue like welfare, which lacks these types of angles.

Perhaps Berg did believe from the bottom of his heart that this legislation would benefit the general public; maybe he didn't. We could speculate ad infinitum.

Regardless, the investment portfolio of a working or middle class person consists of a small number of investments: a house, a car, and perhaps a $401(k). Comparatively, the portfolios of our country’s wealthiest will often possess a wider array of investments that impact a wider range of people.

For this reason, a wealthy person is more likely to encounter these public-versus-private interest problems more often as a politician than someone of the working or middle class. The less personal investments a congressperson has, the fewer personal dogs they have in congressional debates.

In The Republic, Plato imagined a leadership class with no wealth and few possessions -- the Guardians. That bar is too high, but it seems reasonable to want a Congress that looks -- and thinks -- largely like the rest of America. We don't have that Congress now.