News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Members Of Congress Weather Recession, Become Richer

The flag waves in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
The flag waves in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have stories today that highlight the fact that members of the United States Congress are increasingly wealthier than their constituents and they're also getting richer at a faster rate than even their fellow private-industry rich folks.

Now, we've reported on this on before. Back in November, we reported that Congress' net-worth had spiked 25 percent in the past couple of years. And our friend Frank James at It's All Politics reported that according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the rich in Congress are getting richer despite a recession.

But both the Post and Times, take a big step back. As the Times reports, Congress has always been a place for the rich — think the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, Hearsts and Guggenheims — but, they add, "rarely has the divide appeared so wide, or the public contrast so stark, between lawmakers and those they represent."

The Post puts numbers to that assertion:

"In 1984, one in five House members had zero or negative net worth excluding home equity, according to the disclosures; by 2009, that number had dropped to one in 12."

That, the Post explains, follows what's been happening for the broader nation. That is that wealthy are getting wealthier:

"In 1984, the 90th percentile of U.S. families had holdings worth six times the median family's; by 2009, the 90th percentile was worth 12 times the median family, according to the University of Michigan study, a longitudinal panel survey. These figures include home equity."

The Times tries to explain why this is happening in Congress:

"There is broad debate about just why the wealth gap appears to be growing. For starters, the prohibitive costs of political campaigning may discourage the less affluent from even considering a candidacy. Beyond that, loose ethics controls, shrewd stock picks, profitable land deals, favorable tax laws, inheritances and even marriages to wealthy spouses are all cited as possible explanations for the rising fortunes on Capitol Hill."

The Post, again puts numbers to that assertion about the costs of campaigning:

"Since 1976, the average amount spent by winning House candidates quadrupled in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $1.4 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"For example, [former Rep. Gary Myers'] first winning campaign, in 1974, cost $33,000, according to federal election records. That's about $146,000 in current dollars, or one-tenth the current average."

So, in the end, it's complicated, but what is clear and what all these stories are saying is that members of Congress are "getting richer compared not only with the average American worker, but also with other very rich Americans."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.