At first glance, our annual roster of the wealthiest people in Congress brought to mind one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most quoted lines: “Let me tell you about the very rich," goes the opening of "The Rich Boy," his 1926 short story. "They are different from you and me.”
But a more careful review of the exhaustively researched report quickly conjured up this codicil: The 50 Richest are profoundly different in many important ways from their own colleagues, who in the aggregate are still a whole lot better off than the vast majority of people they represent.
The median net worth of the top 50 was $14.3 million, a number made all the more astonishing by the fact that it’s 46 times as much as the median net worth ($306,000) of all the other members of Congress last year. And that lesser amount, in turn, is more than quadruple the median household net worth in the country.
Beyond that, the calculation of every member’s net worth shows that the super-rich are making a stronger-than-ever showing at the top levels of the congressional power structure. The 50 Richest list includes both of the minority leaders, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California at No. 15 and GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at No. 39, as well as the chairmen of a half-dozen committees — three each from the GOP-majority House and the Democratic-run Senate.
The number of such leadership positions held by members of the 50 Richest hasn't been higher since CQ Roll Call began its annual study 24 years ago. (Net worth is determined by subtracting the minimum potential liabilities from the minimum declared assets on every lawmaker's annual financial disclosure statement.)
With the impasse over the budget threatening a government shutdown in two weeks and a potential default within the next two months, the next decisions driving the deficit and debt will engender another wave of discussion about the federal government’s role in redistributing wealth — either through the tax code or through spending on social programs.
And the obvious point is this: The people doing the talking at the Capitol will come disproportionately from one side of that divide — way more than 1 percent of lawmakers are in that top percentile of American prosperity. Just edging onto the 50 Richest, the wealthiest 9 percent of the 535 voting members, required a 2012 net worth of more than $6.6 million.
But another finding in the fine print of the newest disclosures countervails the view that the personal finances of members of Congress leave them ill-equipped to understand the financial situations of their constituents. Fully 72 percent of all members were servicing a mortgage last year, while nationwide only a slight majority of households were in that situation. (Slightly more than one-third of Americans are renters; the rest, mainly older and poorer people, live in housing they own free and clear.)
Curiously, only half the 50 Richest hold mortgages, which puts them in line with the nation only because they don’t need to borrow from a bank to move wherever they want.
That such a large share of lawmakers are making monthly payments on their home loans is bound to affect, if only subconsciously, some of the top domestic policy questions facing Congress after the budget. How should the government change its relationship with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a way that creates long-term stability for the residential real estate market five years after the housing collapse? And should the mortgage interest deduction be revisited whenever Congress turns its attention to a tax overhaul?
The sources of wealth for the best off at the Capitol are also bound to have an impact in other ways when the tax code debate is re-engaged. A dozen of the 50 Richest are heirs to old-fashioned family fortunes, and 10 more wouldn't have made the list but for the considerable wealth of their wives or husbands. They will all no doubt be paying intense interest to the revived debate over the estate tax, while the nine who derive most of their extraordinary wealth from real estate and land holdings will surely be paying attention to different chapters in the IRS code.
Conforming to stereotype, if only somewhat, 58 percent of the 50 Richest are Republicans; 52 percent of the combined House and Senate membership belongs to the GOP. That said, Democrats account for eight of the dozen richest, those with a net worth cresting $30 million.
The study’s results also reflect the common perception that senators are better off than congressmen: While 13 percent of the Senate made the 50 Richest, only 8 percent of House members did so.
In other ways, too, the demographic profile of the group differs significantly from both the rest of Congress and the rest of the country.
While 37 percent of the population, and 17 percent of Congress, are members of an ethnic minority group, there’s only one such person among the 50 Richest: Rep. Bill Flores, a Hispanic Republican from Texas who’s a former energy company executive, came in at No. 49. And while the share of women on the list — 9 of them, or 18 percent — precisely reflected the percentage of Congress that’s female, women continue to be 51 percent of the American populace.