As with the general U.S. population, a few exceedingly wealthy people skew the averages for the rest of the membership. But still, by almost any measure, the average Member of Congress is far wealthier than the average U.S. household.
For example, dividing the total wealth of Congress by the number of Members creates a mean (average) net worth for each Member of about $3.8 million (excluding non-income-producing property such as personal residences). By comparison, for the rest of the country, based on statistics released by the Federal Reserve, average household net worth is around $500,000 this year (including personal residences), according to David Rosnick, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
But a handful of Members of Congress are worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars — the richest Member of Congress this year, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), is worth a minimum of $294 million, meaning that McCaul's own wealth has the effect of raising the average of every Member of Congress by about $500,000.
So a better number for comparison is the median, the number where half the group is above and half the group is below. For Congress, the median net worth in 2010 was about $513,000. For regular households, the Federal Reserve Board pegged that number at about $120,000 in 2008, and that number this year is probably around $100,000, Rosnick said.
While it is hard to make an exact comparison between Congress and the rest of the nation, what is clear is lawmakers "are all a lot richer than anything you would call a typical American," Rosnick said.
And Congress appears to be getting richer faster than the rest of the nation. Citing Federal Reserve data, Rosnick said, "From the end of 2008 to end of 2010, aggregate household worth increased 12 percent." That is about half the increase Congress achieved during the same time period.
The cautionary note in any Congressional wealth analysis is that significant changes in apparent wealth of Members do not necessarily represent an actual change in net worth.
For example, Rep. Darrell Issa reported this year that his 2010 assets were worth at least $295 million, nearly double what they were the year before. The reason for the change appears to be in part because the California Republican moved some properties from a single account into separate accounts. An account that Issa had listed as having a minimum value of $50 million in 2009 dropped to a minimum value of $25 million in 2010, but he added 11 accounts with a minimum combined value of $38.2 million. Even if none of the actual account (or property) values increased, the minimum value of those assets on paper rises by $13.2 million, or more than 25 percent.
Alan Ziobrowski, a professor of real estate at Georgia State University, has produced studies of Congressional investment patterns indicating that lawmakers in both chambers tend to fare better in their investment portfolios than the average American, in part because "[t]here is no doubt in my mind that they are trading in some way on information that is there."
But he also points out that the Membership of Congress has turned over since 2008, making it difficult to compare wealth over time. "You've got different people," he said.