How Rich Is Congress? Most Lawmakers Are Now Millionaires

It's a thin majority, but with at least 268 out of 534 members of Congress reporting an average net worth of $1 million or more, our federal government's bicameral legislature is now mostly composed of millionaires.

The Center for Responsive Politics, having analyzed personal financial disclosure data for 2012, found that "the median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767" -- up from the previous year's result, $966,000. "Last year only 257 members, or about 48% of lawmakers, had a median net worth of at least $1 million," the Center reports.

Overall, Congressional Democrats are slightly wealthier than their Republican colleagues: the median net worth was $1.04 million for the Blue Team, and almost exactly $1 million for the Red. And senators are significantly richer than House members: the median net worth for the former was a cool $2.5 million, versus $896,000 for the latter.

Democrats edged Republicans in the House -- $929,000 median net worth to $884,000 -- but elephants trampled donkeys in the Senate, $2.9 million to $1.7 million. In the House, both sides of the aisle have gotten richer since 2011, while in the Senate the Democrats' median figure lost $700,000 while the Republicans' gained $400,000. (The drop in Senate Democrats' assets is attributed in part to the loss of two especially loaded legislators, John Kerry and the late Frank Lautenberg.)

The wealthiest member of Congress, officially at least, is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), with an average net worth of $464 million in 2012. Issa, who chairs the powerful House Oversight Committee, struck it rich in the 1980s with the Viper car alarm, which told would-be thieves to "Please step away from the car," in the congressman's voice.

But there's reason to believe that certain superrich lawmakers are worth even more than they claim, since a new rule allows House members to report "income and liabilities" belonging to their spouses as being worth "$1 million or more" -- an awfully broad category. Hence last year's lucre champ, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), reported an average net worth of "just" $143.1 million in 2012—down from the previous year's estimate of $500.6 million. That's largely because his wife's family fortune has all but disappeared from his disclosure. (Linda McCaul is the daughter of Clear Channel Communications Chairman Lowry Mays.)

Even the "poorest" member of Congress is in the red because of something he owns: Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.) was worth negative $12.1 million in 2012 because of loans for his family's dairy farm.

Other interesting findings concern lawmakers' investments. The most popular company to own among members of Congress is General Electric, with 74 shareholders, followed by Wells Fargo, with 58. Financial firms in general were popular choices, which is noteworthy given how closely their fortunes are tied to government actions. But real estate took first place, with investments valued somewhere between $442.2 million and $1.4 billion.

In somewhat related news, a study published last November in The Journal of Politics found that "Washington gridlock helps the super-rich stay rich, and get richer," according to one of the authors. (Hat tip to Moyers & Company.) The less Congress gets done, the more money goes to those at the top. 2013 saw the fewest laws enacted of any Congress's first year since 1973, said to be the first year for which reliable data exists.

How did we end up here? What would the founders think? There's reason to believe that some of them actually wanted things this way. According to James Madison, the so-called Father of the Constitution, the government "should be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority"; this was to him the purpose of the rather undemocratic Senate, which wasn't filled by direct election until the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. And according to John Jay's son William, it was "a favorite maxim with" his father "that those who own the country ought to govern it." Jay wrote five of the Federalist Papers, arguing in favor of ratifying the Constitution, and was the first chief justice of the U.S.

Here are the 10 richest members of Congress, ranked by average net worth. (The full list is here.)

  • 1. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif), $464,115,018
  • 2. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va), $257,481,658
  • 3. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo), $197,945,705
  • 4. Rep. John K. Delaney (D-Md), $154,601,580
  • 5. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), $143,153,910
  • 6. Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif), $112,467,040
  • 7. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), $103,803,192
  • 8. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa), $101,290,514
  • 9. Rep. Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla), $88,802,066
  • 10. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), $87,997,030
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