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Roll Call

Rich Senator, ‘Poor’ Senator

Nearly half the Senators now in office don’t qualify for the chamber’s famed “millionaires club.”

But they’re still probably wealthier than you.

A Roll Call analysis of Senate financial disclosure forms filed in 2009 shows 48 of the chamber’s Members fell short of the $1 million mark, but nonetheless nearly all reported minimum net worths above the typical American household.

The remaining 50 Senators record minimum net worths of at least $1 million or more.

The survey included 98 Senators. Disclosure forms from newly appointed Sens. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) and Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) are not yet publicly available.

Wealth in the chamber ranges from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — the richest Member of Congress overall — who tops the list with a minimum net worth of at least $167.55 million, to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who registers a negative $40,000.

Overall, the chamber claims a combined minimum net worth of nearly $651 million, or an average of about $6.64 million per Senator.

The median value of the Senators registers at $1.06 million, falling between Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) at a minimum net worth of $1 million and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) at $1.12 million.

“The Senate is known as being the wealthiest chamber in Congress. Senators have to have a lot of resources in order to be able to wage an effective campaign,” Public Citizen’s Craig Holman noted.

But Holman added: “There is a great deal of concern because the Senate does not reflect the demographics of the country as a whole. We’re dealing with a body that does not reflect America.”

Roll Call’s analysis of Senators’ wealth is based solely on the information lawmakers must provide in their annual 2009 financial disclosure reports, which cover calendar year 2008.

Roll Call determines each lawmaker’s minimum net worth by adding the lowest number in the range reported for each asset — for example, a $1 million to $5 million asset would be evaluated at $1 million — and subtracting the lowest total liabilities.

Although lawmakers are compelled to reveal information about assets including investment accounts or rental properties, the disclosure process protects Members from divulging other economic indicators, such as the value of homes as well as antiques, vehicles and other valuables.

The exclusion of homes — Senators are not required to report properties that do not generate income, including vacation homes or part-time residences — can potentially skew the public perception of a lawmaker’s true wealth.

Although Baucus ranks last in the chamber’s tally, District of Columbia property records show he sold his Georgetown home in late April for $2.1 million, shortly after he announced his divorce from his wife, Wanda. D.C. property records also report Baucus purchased a new three-bedroom Capitol Hill home in June, now valued at $907,000. Baucus will not be required to reveal these transactions in next year’s filing.

The only other Senator to report a negative net worth, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), also owns Capitol Hill property, according to public records. The Senator’s three-bedroom home is valued at more than $675,000.

Even without the added value related to such major assets, however, 92 of those Senators reported net worth above that of typical American households.

According to a U.S. Census Bureau report issued in 2008, the median net worth for households headed by 55- to 64-year-olds reached $133,000 — or just $34,000 excluding home equity — in 2002, the most recent data available.

(Those households represented the highest median net worth when home equity was not counted. All of the 110 million households tallied reported a median net worth of $59,000 in 2002, or $11,000 excluding home equity.)

The Census Bureau report tallied assets including interest-earning bank accounts; certificates of deposit; bonds, stocks and mutual funds; rental properties; primary and vacation homes; retirement accounts; and vehicles — and subtracted for liabilities including mortgages, vehicle loans, credit card debt, medical bills and education loans.

The report did not include assets such as equity in pension plans, cash value of life insurance policies, home furnishings or jewelry.

The Senate first earned its moniker as the “millionaires club” in the late 19th century, explained Senate Historian Don Ritchie.

“In those days Senators were elected by state legislatures and a number of people who had struck it rich in the Western states ... essentially tried to buy their way into the Senate by spreading money around the state legislatures,” Ritchie said.

“The newspapers and magazine writers began to complain that these Senators didn’t represent the public interest, they represented the private interest,” he added.

The rumblings contributed to the eventual adoption of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, providing for the direct election of Senators.

Nonetheless, Ritchie noted that in the first election following the amendment’s adoption, every Senate incumbent won re-election.

“It was not that the Senators didn’t reflect the public interest ... people in Pennsylvania wanted the steel mills and people in Louisiana wanted the sugar cane production,” he said.

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