ALBANY, Ga. — A new report out this week shows that the gap between the wealth earned by elected members of Congress and that of their constituents has grown considerably over the last decade.
That report, published in part by The Associated Press, shows that nearly half of Congress — 250 members in all — are now millionaires, an illustrative example of how the wealth gap between lawmakers and their constituents appears to be growing quickly even as Congress has debated unemployment benefits, possible cuts in food stamps and a “millionaire’s tax.”
The report was conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group and analyzed by the New York Times, shows that even as much of the nation sinks deeper into debt and red ink, Congress is growing richer.
“But with the American public feeling all this economic pain, people just resent it more,” said Alan J. Ziobrowski, a professor at Georgia State who studied lawmakers’ stock investments.
While the median net worth of members of Congress jumped 15 percent between 2004 and 2010, the net worth of the richest 10 percent of Americans remained essentially flat. For all Americans, median net worth dropped 8 percent during that period, based on inflation-adjusted data from Moody’s Analytics.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a former auto alarm magnate who is worth somewhere between $195 million and $700 million, tops the list.
And while the world of personal congressional financial disclosure is one painted in very broad strokes and filled with veiled responses on government documents, in southwest Georgia the wealth gap is a different story.
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, for instance, ranks 429th out 435 House members in terms of total net worth, according to non-profit Congressional watchdog group Opensecrets.org. Based on his most recent personal financial disclosure, Bishop’s total net worth ranges between negative $430,000 and $111,000, with his net worth for 2010 at negative $159,000. His highest average wealth between 2004-10 was $668,000 in 2006, the site states.
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, the Tifton Republican who is one of the newest faces of Georgia’s congressional delegation, enjoys a net worth considerably higher than Bishop’s, but one that is still significantly lower that many in the House.
Opensecrets.org lists his total net worth at somewhere between $1.1 million and $2.4 million, which puts him at No. 139 in the House. His net worth for 2010 was around $1.8 million. Scott’s net worth for 2010 was up from $1.7 million in 2009 — his first year in Congress.
On the Senate side, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, ranks 91st in net worth in the Senate, with his average 2010 net worth listed at $337,000. His total net worth is somewhere between $164,000 and $511,000.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Atlanta, is a much different story, ranking 22nd in the Senate with an average net worth in 2010 of more than $12 million. His total net worth is listed as between $6.4 million and $17.5 million.
There is wide debate about just why the wealth gap appears to be growing. For starters, the prohibitive costs of political campaigning may discourage the less affluent from even considering a run for Congress. Beyond that, loose ethics controls, members’ shrewd stock picks, profitable land deals, favorable tax laws, inheritances and even marriages to wealthy spouses are all cited as possible explanations for the rising fortunes on Capitol Hill.
What is clear is that members of Congress are getting richer compared not only to the average American worker but even to other very rich Americans.
Their wealth has created occasional political problems for Congress’s richest.
Issa, for instance, has faced outside scrutiny because of the overlap of his congressional work with outside interests, including extensive investments with Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, as well as land holdings in his San Diego district. In one case, he obtained some $800,000 in federal earmarks for a road-widening project running along his commercial property.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who is married to Teresa Heinz Kerry, set off a firestorm last year when it was disclosed he had docked his $7 million, 76-foot yacht not in his home state but in neighboring Rhode Island, which has no sales or use tax on pleasure boats. (Kerry, worth at least $181 million, voluntarily paid $400,000 in Massachusetts taxes — after public criticism.)
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and former speaker, was challenged about her wealth, as much as $196 million, by a member of her own party a few weeks ago. Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., who is among the poorest members of Congress with as much as $464,000 in debt, attacked Pelosi at a closed-door Democratic caucus meeting for endorsing a congressional pay freeze, according to a report in Politico confirmed by other members.
The Associated Press
contributed to this story.