Congressman Moneybags: Darrell Issa and Washington's epidemic of wealth

For the first time ever, more members of Congress are millionaires than not. Why it's bad news for the rest of us

Published January 14, 2014 2:15PM (EST)

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA)                (Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua)
Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) (Reuters/Jose Luis Magaua)

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Over the holidays, I was watching that old Marilyn Monroe comedy “How to Marry a Millionaire” on Turner Classic Movies (okay, I have no life). This week, a new report suggests (to me, at least)  that if Hollywood were to produce a remake of that 1953 film, the variety of now politically incorrect tactics Ms. Monroe and her friends deploy to land a well-to-do partner could be reduced to one: start dating a member of Congress.

An analysis of personal financial disclosure data by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reveals that “for the first time in history” a majority of senators and representatives are millionaires:

Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, according to disclosures filed last year by all members of Congress and candidates. The median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767 — an increase from last year when it was $966,000. In addition, at least one of the members elected since then, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), is a millionaire, according to forms she filed as a candidate. (There is currently one vacancy in Congress.)

This is up from the previous year, when approximately 48 percent of the members had a median net worth of at least a million, and represents, according to the Center, “a watershed moment at a time when lawmakers are debating issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps and the minimum wage, which affect people with far fewer resources, as well as considering an overhaul of the tax code.”

According to the Center’s executive director Sheila Krumholz, “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. Of course, it’s undeniable that in our electoral system, candidates need access to wealth to run financially viable campaigns, and the most successful fundraisers are politicians who swim in those circles to begin with.”

Yes, indeed. Her comments come as the Center alsoreportsthat candidates’ campaign committeesalready have raised $446 million for the 2014 midterm elections with incumbents raking in more than ten times the amount of their challengers. The midterms already are shaping up as the most expensive ever, coming in the wake of the 2012 elections’ orgy of splurging, much of it in hefty checks from anonymous big spenders whose wallets have been freed by Citizens United and other court decisions.

When it comes to the personal billfolds of Congressional incumbents, overall, Democrats slightly edge out Republicans with a median net worth just a few thousand above the million mark (in the Senate, GOP members do a little better than Dems; in the House, it’s the opposite).

Returning to the top spot after a year in the number two position is the powerful and publicity-obsessed Republican House member Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, scourge of the IRS and car alarm magnate, whose average net worth in 2012 was $464 million.  He took back the #1 title from Republican Congressman Michael McCaul of Texas, whose wife Linda is the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Chairman Lowry Mays.

As for their most popular investments, 74 members reported owning shares in defense contractor and appliance maker General Electric, which shelled out $4.6 million in campaign contributions during the 2012 election cycle and spent more than $21 million on lobbying in 2012. Second on the list was Wells Fargo – 58 members have shares. Its 2012 campaign contributions were almost $3.8 million, lobbying was another $6.8 million. Other top ten stock picks include Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Apple, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, IBM, Cisco Systems and AT&T, each of which makes sure to throw campaign cash at those members who help grease the skids. Would that there was such a stimulus program for the rest of us!

However, the Center notes, “real estate was the most popular investment for members of Congress. Their investments in real estate in 2012 were valued at between $442.2 million and $1.4 billion.”

So it’s like they say in the real estate business about making money: it’s all about location, location, location. Especially if your location is Capitol Hill.

(You can read the complete list of members, their assets and favorite investments here.)

By Michael Winship

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos and a senior writer of the new series, Moyers & Company, airing on public television.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------ Congress Darrell Issa Income Inequality Wealth