Opinion: What Matters About the Wealth of Congress

How much is too much?

Political figures like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are more comfortable talking about their humble roots than their current wealth, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Political figures like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, are more comfortable talking about their humble roots than their current wealth, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 28, 2018 at 5:02am

Last November, as the Senate Finance Committee debated the tax bill, partisan talking points degenerated into a shouting match between chairman Orrin Hatch and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown.

The 83-year-old Hatch, who is retiring at the end of this year, huffed, “I come from the poor people … and I resent anybody who says I’m doing this for the rich.” Hatch added, “I come from the lower middle class originally. We didn’t have anything, so don’t spew that stuff at me.”

What Hatch did not mention during this sermon on social class is that he is now worth a minimum of $1.7 million, based on Roll Call’s analysis of his financial disclosure. This number almost certainly understates Hatch’s wealth since it does not include the worth of his home and employs the minimum values for income ranges used on the form.

Brown, by the way, has an estimated net worth of $200,000, according to Roll Call’s calculations, which ranks him 336th in Congress. Hatch comes in at No. 155.

Watch: A Guide to Roll Call’s Wealth of Congress

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Born in a log cabin?

Hatch’s self-justification (“I come from the lower middle class”) illustrates a larger truth: Political figures are infinitely more comfortable talking about their humble roots than their current affluence.

Candidates embracing shabby chic dates back at least to the 1840 presidential campaign. The victorious William Henry Harrison owned a mansion and 2,000 acres of farmland, but was portrayed as happily sitting on the porch of his log cabin drinking hard cider out of a jug.

Certainly, a politician does not have to ever have been poor to serve as a tribune for the impoverished. Franklin Roosevelt never missed a meal growing up on an estate at Hyde Park educated by private tutors. And no one would have ever described Bobby Kennedy’s boyhood as “hardscrabble.”

Roll Call’s “Wealth of Congress” compendium gives rise to the question: How much is too much?

Almost 40 percent of Congress (207 out of 530 members filing reports) are millionaires. Yes, serving in Congress requires atypical expenses, such as maintaining two homes. But remember, the Roll Call figures are very conservative estimates.

Are we close to the point when members of Congress — in both parties — tend to see their constituents who live paycheck to paycheck as abstractions? How representative should your representative in Congress be?

These are questions as old as American democracy. The framers of the Constitution were not simply mechanics and yeomen of the soil who happened, by chance, to wander past Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1787.

Even if you selected 535 Americans by lottery to serve in Congress, they would cease to be typical the moment they were sworn in.

Watch: Book Sellers, Self Funders and 970 Liabilities For One Entry: Takeaways from Wealth of Congress

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These legislators-by-lot would be demographically representative in terms of wealth and life experience. But entering the total environment that is Congress and earning $174,000 a year would quickly give them an outlook that markedly differs from their neighbors back home.

In practical terms, wealth matters in getting to Congress. Self-funders (even if they are limited to kicking in the first $500,000 or $1 million) can plan a professional campaign months in advance, and their financial edge often deters primary challengers.

Also, most Americans (even those passionate about politics) cannot afford to quit their job or take a lengthy leave of absence on the speculative hunch that they might win a congressional election.

Even in the 1950s — before the staggering leap in corporate and Wall Street incomes — a typical first-time congressional candidate might be a well-heeled small-town lawyer or insurance agent who would benefit from the publicity even in a losing race.

Maybe the best way to look at wealth on Capitol Hill is through the prism of whether legislators have begun to see themselves as a gilded elite whose behavior is impervious to normal human considerations.

From this perspective, it is intriguing that the second richest member of Congress is Montana’s Greg Gianforte (worth a minimum of $135.7 million), who entered the House last year after a special election.

It may be relevant, or it may be coincidental, that Gianforte is also the only recent congressional candidate who physically attacked a reporter on the eve of a hard-fought election. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to a charge of misdemeanor assault.

(Disclosures: Ben Jacobs — the Guardian reporter who was body-slammed for having the temerity to ask a congressional candidate a policy question — is a friend. I also write periodically for the Guardian.)

A little distant

More worrisome than money, though, are the other trends that distance government officials from the people they serve.

Not too long ago, virtually all members of Congress routinely held open meetings where they took questions from anyone who showed up. Now whenever there is a contentious issue in Washington (which means virtually always), legislators in both parties tend to hide, using gimmicks like ticketed events and telephonic town halls.

In the years following 9/11, there has also been an obvious growth in the frequency with which members of Congress are enveloped in a cocoon of security. While not minimizing threats, it is hard not to develop an inflated sense of self-importance when you are surrounded by armed law enforcement personnel.

This might be called the Scott Pruitt syndrome. Pruitt, the first-class-loving administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, recently told the New Hampshire Union Leader that he needed to fly in the front of the plane because, well, some people apparently said mean things to him when he traveled coach.

In the end, the character test does not lie in how much money a legislator has when he or she arrives in Congress. What matters is how they see themselves once they are in office — and whether, in the end, they pitch their careers toward someday getting rich as lobbyists and influence peddlers.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.