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Wealth of Congress: How the Rich Got Richer (Video)

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., with Norton. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., with Norton. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If Congress ever raises taxes on the 1 percent, nearly 10 percent of members will face the hike.

That’s one simplistic way of comprehending how much better the economic standing of the nation’s lawmakers is compared to the financial positions of their constituents.

Capitol Hill has always been disproportionately populated by the well-to-do, from the landed gentry who dominated early Congresses through the industrialists who held sway at the start of the 20 th  century to the corporate lawyers and executives who dominated a few decades ago.

The 10 Richest Members of Congress in 2015

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But the current oversample of the rich and super rich is particularly notable now, the year before an election in which one of the hottest issues looks to be the level of income inequality unseen since the 1920s.

If that debate enters the legislative arena, the wealthiest Americans will have plenty of their own in positions of influence.

The median net worth among all 535 members is more than five times that for all U.S. households, $81,400 in 2013. Half the senators and 140 House members are paper millionaires, but just 5 percent of all adults are, in the estimate of Credit Suisse Research.

And the richest 50 lawmakers were worth at least $7.3 million at the start of the year. The current threshold for being a member of “the one percent” is a net worth of about $7.9 million, according to the most recent Federal Reserve study of census data.

Republicans hold 56 percent of all the seats in the 114 th Congress, but make up two-thirds of the richest members. Among those in the top 50 are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; the GOP chairmen of seven committees and 11 lawmakers with jurisdiction over tax policy as members of the House Ways and Means or Senate Finance committees.

The Roll Call Wealth of Congress Index estimates each member’s minimum net worth using their annual financial disclosure statements, subtracting the floor on the reported value of all liabilities from the floor on the reported value of all assets.

Those numbers don’t paint a complete picture though, for several reasons. Members don’t have to make public the value of their residences, which remain the principal asset for most Americans. (They do have to estimate the amount they owe on mortgages, though.) And lawmakers are required to disclose their other assets and debts in 11 broad categories, starting at less than $1,000 and topping out at $50 million or more.

The 10 ‘Poorest’ Members of Congress in 2015

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For the third consecutive year, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California remains far and away the richest member of Congress — his fortune from creating a car alarm empire standing at $255 million, at least, or 13 percent of the collective minimum net worth of his colleagues.

He’s worth at least twice as much as the No. 2 lawmaker on the list, GOP Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, whose riches are entirely attributable to the fact that his wife, Linda, is the daughter of one of the nation’s biggest radio station magnates.

The wealthiest Democrats both live within a Metro ride of the Capitol and are worth just north of $90 million thanks to their success in the business world — Rep. John Delaney of Maryland in banking and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia in cellphones.

The entrepreneurial backstories behind three of them are emblematic of one of the most notable recent evolutions in the wealth of Congress. Two-thirds of the current members became multimillionaires thanks to their own business acumen, whereas just a decade ago that figure was no more than 40 percent.

That shift has been almost entirely because of a change in the type of wealthy Republicans on the Hill. This year, 25 GOP lawmakers on the 50 richest roster have self-made fortunes, but only five made the list thanks to inherited wealth. In 2004, there were 15 with huge family fortunes and only a dozen who had made their own money.

Of the Democrats among the 50 richest, eight are self-made, eight owe their financial comfort to their spouses and only one is a trust-funder: Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III of Massachusetts, whose namesake great-grandfather made a legendary fortune in banking, liquor and moviemaking.

There are several real estate success stories, trial lawyers, oil and gas entrepreneurs and online innovators among the 50 richest. But it’s the car business that’s produced the most members on the list: five auto dealership magnates and the former CEO of a parts manufacturer.

The only Democrat among the auto millionaires, Rep. Don Beyer Jr., the onetime Volvo kingpin of Northern Virginia, is also the only Democrat among the six Hill freshmen who joined the 50 richest based on their net worth as candidates in 2014. The Republicans are Sen. David Perdue of Georgia (a corporate turnaround expert), Rep. Dave Trott of Michigan (home foreclosures), Rep. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey (insurance claims processing), Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa (software development) and Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter of Georgia (a chain of pharmacies).

Of that group, only Carter didn’t invest in his own campaign, a reminder of the importance of self-funding in producing a growing share of the Hill’s membership.

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