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Editorial: The rich – and even richer – rule Congress

Roll Call magazine issued its annual report of the 50 wealthiest members of the U.S. Congress last week, along with its companion list of the 10 poorest representatives.

The results are about what you would expect: The members of the House of Representatives and the Senate – even the poorest – are far more affluent than typical Americans.

In fact, the 50 richest members of Congress in the survey had to have a net worth of at least $7.4 million just to place. Last year, it was $6.7 million.

By comparison, the median annual American household income is $46,700.

Interestingly, the California delegation boasts both the richest Congress member and the poorest, although the calculations for poverty are, shall we say, somewhat imprecise.

The richest and the poorest are both Republicans. Rep. Darrell Issa, who made his money in the car-alarm business, has a net worth of $357 million.

You can pay for a lot for frivolous investigations with that kind of money.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is the wealthiest woman in Congress, with assets calculated at $44 million. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is not broke either, worth a whopping $29 million. Understandably, California is a huge state, and it is daunting for those of modest means to seek statewide office.

Of course, not all members of Congress are astronomically wealthy.

Central Valley Rep. David Valadao, the poorest member of Congress, is $3.7 million in the hole. However, he has a fairly substantial ranching operation with several mortgages against it, so he may not be “poor” in the way we understand it.

Southern California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Howard “Buck” McKeon are also down near the bottom 10 for poverty. But, again, this is mostly measured in mortgage debt. They’re not struggling. Rohrabacher even found $100,000 to invest in a biotech firm.

What does this all mean? When you have a U.S. Senate and House composed of a plurality of millionaires, along with the majority who are simply quite well-off, it leads to skewed thinking and priorities. Though many may be working hard to help the middle class, some of them just don’t have the personal experience with it. That’s not helpful when it comes time to vote.

Many wealthier Congress members and senators will assert that since they are personally financially comfortable, it assures that they can’t be bought. Perhaps. With the Citizens United ruling and the astronomical amounts of money it takes simply to get elected, all of them are constantly fundraising anyway. That’s even worse for the system.

We’ll never be able to get money out of politics; that’s a fact. But when too many of our elected representatives are too wealthy, it doesn’t lead to representation that empathizes with the typical citizen.

Otherwise brilliant, qualified candidates just can’t compete for financial reasons. Our nation is poorer for that.

In a nation where 25 percent of its citizens have no personal savings and millions more are living on the edge, a Congress filled with millionaires who don’t understand everyday money worries may lead to disconnection from the electorate.

A strong middle class represented by more people like them will lead to a richer nation. Isn’t that why our representatives and senators serve?