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Wealth of Congress: Richer than ever, but mostly at the very top

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A congressman walks up the steps outside the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk on Jan. 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Edelman/CNP/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The people’s representatives just keep getting richer, and doing so faster than the people represented.

The cumulative net worth of senators and House members jumped by one-fifth in the two years before the start of this Congress, outperforming the typical American’s improved fortunes as well as the solid performance of investment markets during that time.

The disparity becomes clear after examining the most recent financial disclosures of virtually every current lawmaker. The news is not likely to do them any good during a midterm campaign year when disapproval of Capitol Hill remains in record territory and sentiment remains strong that politicians in Washington are far too disconnected from the lives of their constituents.

The total wealth of all current members was at least $2.43 billion when the 115th Congress began, 20 percent more than the collective riches of the previous Congress, a significant gain during a period when both the Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose slightly less than 10 percent.

Beyond that grand total, the median minimum net worth of today’s senators and House members was $511,000 at the start of this Congress, an upward push of 16 percent over just two years  — and quintuple the median net worth of an American household, which the Federal Reserve pegged at $97,300 in 2016.

The financial disparity between those who try to govern and those who are governed is almost certainly even greater than that.

Members of Congress are not required to make public the value of their residences and their contents, which are the principal assets of most Americans. Nor are they required to reveal their other assets and debts to the penny, or even close — instead using 11 broad categories of value, starting at less than $1,000 and topping out at $50 million or more, that do a comprehensive job of obscuring what each member is precisely worth.

Notwithstanding the limits of the annual, and minimally policed disclosure rules, it’s clear the Capitol remains as populated as ever with a disproportionate share of the wealthy.

Millionaire lawmakers have always been a part of the congressional story — from the landed gentry who created and first populated the legislative branch, through the industrialists who wielded outsized influence in the Gilded Age, to the corporate bosses and old money heirs who larded the cloakrooms through the end of the Cold War.

What’s marked recent years, a time when wealth disparity has grown wider than ever in American history, is the arrival of so many of the superrich. For every 13 members, in fact, one may fairly be dubbed a “1 percenter,” the term of derision imposed by liberal groups on the richest 1 percent of Americans. At the high end of that group are 10 House members and three senators worth more than $43 million.

These lawmakers, plus seven others with a minimum net worth above $7.5 million, make the most recent roster of the 50 richest members of Congress, which Roll Call has been compiling since 1990.

The congressional millionaire ranks skew old, reinforcing how many people enter politics only after they’ve assured themselves a solid financial footing. A little more than half of the five dozen lawmakers born before the end of World War II are worth more than $1 million, as are 43 percent of the Hill’s baby boomers.

One thing that’s different about the current 50 richest list is how much of it is guaranteed to change in 2019. Not only will the freshman class elected in November surely include some very wealthy people, but also nine of the richest current members have decided they are not staying in Congress beyond this fall.

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