Despite a recession that depleted bank accounts nationwide in 2008, House lawmakers can still claim a tidy nest egg: a combined minimum net worth of at least $1 billion.
According to a Roll Call analysis of the financial disclosures filed by House Members — 441 records comprising thousands of pages filed by Representatives, nonvoting Delegates and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico — the chamber boasts assets totaling at least $1.13 billion, while its minimum debt tallies a relatively minor $125.69 million.
And the real value of their assets is probably more than twice the reported totals.
Individual wealth varies widely in the chamber, including 125 lawmakers with assets of $1 million or more but 34 Members who report assets valued at or less than zero. (To see a searchable, interactive chart listing the assets and liabilities of all 441 Members of the House, including nonvoting Delegates, click here.)
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) claims the mantle of richest House lawmaker, with a minimum net worth of at least $164.65 million, while Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) sits at the bottom of the list, with negative $2.13 million.
The chamber’s average wealth is least $2.28 million, but that figure includes the 10 richest Members, whose collective fortunes — at least $557.06 million — account for more than half of the House’s combined worth.
Without the richest lawmakers — Issa followed by Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), Harry Teague (D-N.M.), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) — the average wealth drops by half but remains at least $1.04 million per Member.
Roll Call’s analysis of House lawmakers’ wealth is based solely on the information Members provided in their annual 2009 financial disclosure reports, which covered calendar year 2008. The figures do not take into account a lawmaker’s annual salary, which was $169,300 in 2008.
Roll Call determines each lawmaker’s minimum net worth by adding the lowest number in the range reported for each asset — for example, an asset reported as being worth $1 million to $5 million is counted as $1 million — and subtracting the lowest total of the reported 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 theirs homes — both in Washington, D.C., and their districts — as well as antiques, vehicles and other valuables that do not produce income.
According to Roll Call’s analysis, the median net worth in the House is about $366,000. The list’s center seat is shared by Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.), with personal fortunes of at least $366,000 and $365,000, respectively.
By comparison, a Census Bureau report issued in 2008 — but based on data from 2002, the most recent available — found the median net worth for 110 million U.S. households at $59,000 including home equity. Excluding home equity, as Members do on their disclosures, the average American was worth about $11,000.
Households headed by 55- to 64-year-olds represented the highest median net worth when home equity was not counted, at $34,000, or $133,000 when those homes are included.
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 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.
Nonetheless, financially secure Members, even whose fortunes exceed the $1 million mark, shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as anomalies, noted Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and co-author of Vital Statistics on Congress.
“Keep in mind that you’ve got ... many Members who had professional lives for a significant period of time before they came to Congress, so for a lot of these people, for most of them, the buildup of their net worth and capital came earlier,” said Ornstein, a Roll Call contributing writer.
“You probably find not many middle-age professionals out there now — lawyers, doctors, small-business people, brokers — in their late 40s to mid-60s who don’t have a net worth of somewhere around a million dollars or more.”
While both Democrats and Republicans have a penchant for wealthy candidates who can self-fund their campaigns and alleviate fundraising pressures on the parties’ campaign committees, it is less clear whether the electorate values a candidate’s bottom line.
“It’s a great question because all politicians say they understand working Americans, and yet you’ve got liberal Democrats from Nevada who are millionaires and conservative Republicans who are millionaires,” said Eric Herzik, chairman of the University of Nevada’s Department of Political Science.
According to Roll Call’s survey, every member of the Nevada House delegation — Reps. Shelley Berkley (D), Dina Titus (D) and Dean Heller (R) — claims a minimum wealth of at least $1.47 million. Sens. Harry Reid (D) and John Ensign (R) also both claim fortunes in the millions.
Delaware’s delegation claims the only other all-millionaire lineup: Rep. Mike Castle’s (R) net worth tallies at least $2.7 million, while Democratic Sens. Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman reported fortunes of $2.17 million and $7.97 million, respectively.
“A candidate has to have a certain amount of education, a certain amount of success. The public expects that,” Herzik added. “Then you do ask the question of, ‘But can they relate to people like me?’ That’s the art of politics.”