Millionaires Make Up The Majority Of Congress: Here's Why That Hurts Us

Snow falls around the US Capitol Building in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, prompting the federal government to close fo
Snow falls around the US Capitol Building in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, prompting the federal government to close for the wintry weather. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the Eastern Seaboard, including Baltimore, Washington, DC., and Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON -- Millionaires occupy the majority of seats in Congress for the first time since ethics laws mandated personal financial disclosures, according to a new Center for Responsive Politics report.

Out of 534 members of Congress -- there was one vacant seat -- 268 have an average net worth of more than $1 million.

Because senators and representatives are required to report their personal finances only within ranges (such as $100,001 to $250,000), the Center for Responsive Politics calculated net worth as an average of the highest and lowest possible total.

"Despite the fact that polls show how dissatisfied Americans are with Congress overall, there's been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington," Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director, said in a statement.

It's true that Congress has long been filled with the wealthy, but this millionaire milestone comes as the country faces a growing income inequality gap not seen since the Gilded Age. In the past few decades, and particularly during and after the Great Recession, the super rich have seen their incomes and net worth climb as both the poor and middle classes have seen stagnation or regression.

The over-representation of the rich in Congress may influence whose interests legislators are really protecting as they seek to address questions of inequality and need, according to J. Mijin Cha, a senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank Demos.

"This coming out now when you see Congress refusing to extend unemployment insurance is so telling," Cha said.

A growing body of research around the views of the affluent and how those views dominate U.S. politics has revealed that the wealthy have different economic policy priorities than the poor and middle class, and those priorities receive far more attention in the government than the priorities of other economic classes.

Cha pointed to the repeated success in cutting capital gains taxes versus the difficulty in raising the federal minimum wage. "If you think about who is impacted by the minimum wage, and the sheer number of people who are impacted by the minimum wage versus capital gains, it just shows that the affluent and money is just dominating our policy," she said.

Recent research by Nicholas Carnes, a political science professor at Duke University, has likewise found that the economic background and affluence of U.S. legislators impacts economic policymaking.

"Like ordinary Americans, legislators who worked primarily in white-collar jobs before getting elected to Congress -- especially profit-oriented jobs in the private sector -- tend to vote with business interests far more often than legislators who worked primarily in blue-collar jobs," Carnes wrote this week in The Washington Post's "Monkey Cage" blog.

Carnes noted that in his book White-Collar Government, he "simulated how Congress would have voted on several high-profile economic reforms if it had had the same social class makeup as the country."

His results: "Several major conservative economic victories -- including the regressive 2001 Bush tax cuts (which didn’t receive a single vote from a legislator with significant experience in working-class jobs) -- probably wouldn’t have passed."



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