Members of US Congress Get Richer Despite Sour Economy


Despite a long and deep recession, the collective personal wealth of congressional members increased by more than 16 percent between 2008 and 2009, according to a study released Wednesday by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The study also indicates that a significant number of members owned shares of major players in the health-care and financial-services sectors, which were the subject of major reform legislation during the period.

The findings—based on federal financial disclosure data released earlier this year—paint a wealthy bunch in Congress, with more than half of all members—261—were millionaires.

About one in five of those had average calculated wealth in 2009 of at least $10 million. Eight of the 261 were in the $100 million-plus range.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) ranked No. 1 in personal wealth—$303.5 million. (See related slideshow.)

In contrast, U.S. median household income dropped 3 percent to $50,221 between 2008 and 2009, the second straight decline, according to the Census Dept.  In terms of millionaires, only about 1 percent of the overall population qualifies.

The CRP study comes amid a growing public outcry about the size of government and rising employee salaries when the economy—and most taxpayers—are struggling like never before, with unemployment stuck at 9.5 percent and wages and benefits flat in many sectors.

“Congressional representatives on balance rank among the wealthiest of wealthy Americans and boast financial portfolios that are all but unattainable for most of their constituents," said Sheila Krumholz, the Center's executive director.

The period covered is December 2008 to December 2009.

The median wealth of a representative was $765,010, up from $645,503 in 2008, while that of a senator was almost $2.38 million, versus $2.27 million the previous year.

That is sizable considering that by law members of each chamber receive an annual salary of $175,000. They do, however, qualify for a number of perks, including paid travel expenses.

Politicos' Portfolios

Stock holdings are among the assets covered in the report, and the investing tastes of Congress appear to be somewhat conventional, with large-cap, Dow 30 companies dominating the widely-held list of members (see slideshow.)

General Electric ,parent company of CNBC, is No. 1, with 82 current members of Congress listing it. Rounding out the top five are: Bank of America  (63), Cisco Systems (61), Proctor & Gamble (61) and Microsoft (54).

In another context, however, Beltway watchers might find it unsettling that some of the most widely-held stocks are those of companies at the center of the financial crisis in 2008-2009.

Congressional Wealth Divide

"The most popular investment among congressional members reads as a who’s who list of the most powerful corporate political forces in Washington, D.C. -- companies that each spend millions, if not tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying federal officials," states the CRP report.

In addition to Bank of America, Goldman Sachs , Wells Fargo  , JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup  were popular holdings. All of them received funding under the TARP.  Morgan Stanley, General Motors and AIG are not on the list.

Another big sector is health care-drugs, which, like financial services, was the subject of major reform legislation in 2009.

Drug industry giants like Pfizer , for instance, ranked seventh on the list, with 49 members disclosing ownership. Rivals Johnson & Johnson and Merck also made the list of 50 companies.

The study indicates that party affiliation is not a key factor in the increase of lawmakers’ personal assets. Twelve Democrats and seven Republicans were among the 20 congressmen with the greatest annual increases.  That ratio mirrors the overall party breakdown of the current Congress.

The CRP study is by no means precise science. The group notes: "Members of Congress are only required to report their wealth and liabilities in broad ranges. It’s therefore impossible to precisely determine how much value their assets are worth...."