December 27, 2011
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The hard times that most Americans continue to experience don't seem to be making an impact on their representatives in Washington. Now a new report might shed some light on why. According to a Washington Post story this week, “Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home equity.”
Members of Congress have only been getting richer over the last 25 years.
“Over the same period,” the Post continued, “the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500.”
Nearly half of all members of Congress are millionaires, the New York Times
pointed out, and yet many of them don't see themselves as rich. “I don’t see myself as a man of great wealth,” Representative Ed Pastor, Democrat from Arizona, told the Times
. “To say that I’m enjoying a millionaire’s lifestyle — well, I can tell you, I guess a millionaire’s income doesn’t go very far these days.”
And though most Americans would probably be happy to have a net worth, like Pastor's, over $1 milion, it's true that compared to some of his colleagues in Washington, Pastor is merely doing all right. Compared to Sen. John Kerry, whose average net worth the Post calculated to be $231,722,794, or Rep. Darrell Issa, the richest person in Congress with an average net worth of $448,125,017, Pastor looks like a regular working stiff.
But the real comparison isn't between members of Congress. It's looking at these ultra-wealthy politicians in comparison to the folks they represent.
So here, we present 10 of the richest members of Congress, men and women whose wealth utterly dwarfs that of their constituents. While these aren't the 10 richest according to the raw numbers, they're the ones whose districts are largely still suffering the consequences of the slow economy.
1. Rep. Mike Kelly, Republican, Pennsylvania District 3
The Post quoted Kelly, who represents a working-class Western Pennsylvania district, as saying, “Let’s stop railing against the really wealthy because I got to tell you something, as a guy who has had to pay his own way his whole life, I am greatly offended by the idea that somehow someone in Washington knows how to spend my money better than I do.”
But Kelly's idea of paying his own way includes inheriting a car dealership, marrying a wealthy oil heiress, and making some money from the government bailout of the auto industry. As a car dealer, he also profited from the government's “Cash for Clunkers” program. In 2010, he was the 22nd richest member of Congress
, with an average net worth of $34,612,518.
Meanwhile, 16 percent of the people in his district—and a whopping 46 percent of its African-American population -- live in poverty
. 33,403 children, or 24 percent, are poor, and 9.2 percent of the adults are unemployed. The household median wage
is a mere $42,639 – almost $8,000 less than the national average -- and 9 percent make less than $10,000 a year. Only 1.5 percent make over $200,000 a year, and nearly 14 percent used Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (commonly known as SNAP or food stamps) in the past year.
2. Rep. Diane Lynn Black, Republican, Tennessee District 6
Black was elected to Congress as part of the Tea Party class in 2010, from a mostly suburban and rural area east of Nashville, and is the 25th richest member of Congress, with an average net worth, according to the Post
, of $31,272,522. Her husband is CEO of a company called Aegis Sciences Corp., which according to its Web site
“was founded as a sports anti-doping laboratory at Vanderbilt University” and “has evolved into a full service forensic sciences company providing toxicology and consulting services.”
Despite the fact that 16 percent of her constituents live in poverty
, including 23 percent of the children and a full 39 percent of Latino residents, Black voted against the payroll tax cut and unemployment extension. (Her district also has 11.1 percent unemployment.) The median income
for a household is $43,712 a year, and 8.1 percent make under $10,000 a year, with 15.2 percent needing food stamps to help feed their families.
3. Rep. Jim Renacci, Republican, Ohio District 16
Jim Renacci was also elected to Congress in 2010, and with his average net worth
of $42,060,709, became the 20th richest lawmaker. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer
, his fortune comes from nursing homes, real estate investments, car and motorcycle dealerships, a bar and grill, an arena football team and a minor-league baseball team. The Plain Dealer
also reported that he sold 40 cars worth $754,167 under the Cash for Clunkers program, and that he had to pay $1.3 million in back taxes in 2006 to make up for misreporting on his 2000 form.
Meanwhile, in Renacci's district, unemployment is 11 percent, 83,518 people (or 13 percent) live in poverty
, which includes 22 percent of the children and 39 percent of African Americans. Only 2.2 percent make
over $200,000 a year, while 6.5 percent make less than $10,000 a year and the median household income is around $46,000.
4. Rep. Kenny Marchant, Republican, Texas District 24
Marchant was a close ally of then-Texas governor George W. Bush, and according to the Sunlight Foundation has the fifth-largest
holdings in oil companies among members of Congress. The 17th richest Congressperson
in 2010 is a member of the Tea Party Caucus and has an average net worth of $49,340,275. Marchant is a real estate developer who owns a home construction company.
Marchant's district is fairly well-off, with a median i
ncome of $57,031 a year, but 20 percent of its children still live in poverty
as does 23 percent of its Latino population.
5. Sen. James E. Risch, Republican, Idaho
Risch was elected to replace the disgraced Senator Larry Craig (who was arrested for soliciting in an airport bathroom). He's the 16th richest member
of Congress, with an average net worth of $54,088,026. A longtime politician and former Idaho governor, Risch apparently came to his wealth through his time as a lawyer. According to the Spokesman-Review
, “Risch is well-known in Idaho as a self-made millionaire who built a fortune as one of the state’s most successful trial lawyers while also building a political career as a longtime state senator from Boise.”
Meanwhile, back in Idaho, 15.7 percent of the population are living in poverty, including 80,316 children. Thirty-two percent of the state's Native American population also fall beneath the poverty line. The median household income
is only $43,490, and only 1.8 percent make more than $200,000. Ten percent of Idaho's civilian labor force is unemployed, and 12.5 percent were on food stamps at some point in the last year.
6. Sen. Bob Corker, Republican, Tennessee
Corker is the largest landowner in Hamilton County, Tennessee. He was accused, when mayor of Chattanooga, of illegally using his position to push through a land deal between one of his companies and Wal-Mart
. The 15th richest congressman, Corker's average net worth in 2010 was $59,550,022, according to the Post
. And he's a fan of the Bush tax cuts, which unsurprisingly keep his own taxes low.
Corker's constituents in Tennessee have a median wage
just over $40,000 a year, and 17.7 percent of them are below the federal poverty line. Twenty-six percent of Tennessee's children, 29 percent of its African-American population, 34 percent of its Latinos and 36 percent of its Native American residents live in poverty, while 11.3 percent are unemployed and a full 17 percent used SNAP benefits to get through the last year.
7. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, Democrat, West Virginia
Yes, he's one of those Rockefellers. He's a great-grandson of the famed John D. Rockefeller, the first Democrat in a Republican family, and often a fairly progressive voice on economic issues. He offered a public health insurance option amendment to the Senate's version of the healthcare reform bill (it failed) and co-authored the CHIP program, which gives low-income children health insurance.
Still, the fact remains that Rockefeller is incredibly wealthy. The 10th richest member of Congress in 2010, his average net worth was $99,057,011 according to the Post
. Meanwhile, his constituents are the poorest on this list—18.1 percent of West Virginians live in poverty
, and the median household income in his state is $38,218. Just 1.4 percent make over $200,000, and 15.4 percent have used food stamps to get by this year. 8.9 percent of West Virginians are unemployed.
8. Rep. Vernon Buchanan, Republican, Florida, District 13
Buchanan, the eighth richest member
of Congress in 2010 with a net worth somewhere around $136,152,641, was the founder of American Speedy Printing Centers and also got rich selling cars. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
reported in 2006 that Buchanan “uses offshore reinsurance companies in Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands to reduce taxes on extended warranties sold by his auto dealerships,” which, it pointed out, is neither illegal nor uncommon, but is controversial and provoked a defensive statement from the then-candidate that he had always paid his taxes, “But I don't think anyone should pay more taxes than they owe."
Buchanan's district has seen poverty rates increase
since 2007, with 15 percent now under the poverty line and 13.7 percent unemployed. Nine percent have used food stamp benefits in the past year, and 6.1 percent are making less than $10,000 a year.
9. Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican, Texas District 10
McCaul is married to the daughter of Clear Channel Communications' chairman and was the second richest member of Congress in 2010, clocking in with an average net worth
of $380,411,527. In addition to voting against the payroll tax cut, McCaul voted to cut off mortgage modification aid for underwater borrowers under the Home Affordable Modification Program
and echoed the same old claim that the wealthy are “job creators.”
But back at home in Texas, plenty of McCaul's constituents are still having a rough time: 7.3 percent of them are unemployed, and the poverty rate has increased since 2007, with 13 percent of the population and 18 percent of children living below the poverty line
. Nearly half his district's poor (65,142 out of 128,357) are Latino.
10. Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican, California District 49
“In Mr. Issa’s case, it is sometimes difficult to separate the business of Congress from the business of Darrell Issa.”
Those were the words of Eric Lichtblau, writing in the New York Times
this August about the activities of the man the Washington Post
calls the richest in Congress. According to the Post
, he has an average net worth of $448,125,017, and Lichtblau noted that unlike many other wealthy members of Congress (including Rockefeller and Sen. John Kerry), Issa takes a direct hand in running his outside business.
In Issa's Southern California district, 14 percent of the people and 21 percent of the children are living below the poverty line
. 13.8 percent are unemployed, and 5.1 percent used food stamps in the past year. Median household income is relatively high --$57,399--but 5 percent still make less than 10K. While Issa has been good at bringing home projects that enhance his private wealth, it seems that many of his constituents are not feeling the benefits.
Lichtblau wrote, “As his private wealth and public power have grown, so too has the overlap between his private and business lives, with at least some of the congressman’s government actions helping to make a rich man even richer and raising the potential for conflicts.”
Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.