Jacob Heilbrunn

Are There Too Many Millionaires in Congress?

"Who wants to be a millionaire?" is the title of the popular American television show hosted by Meredith Vieira, who presumably qualifies for the designation herself. The more honest question in America is: who doesn't? For a country that seeks to efface, or at least elide, class distinctions, there has recently been an awful lot of talk about whether millionaires are a plague or a blessing, a sign of a country that has run amok or one in which the free-enterprise system rewards those who take risks that can result in great rewards.

Today both the New York Times and the Washington Post add a new dimension to the debate: They focus on Congress. The Post declares that "Congress looks less like the rest of America." The Times states, "Economic Slide Took a Detour At Capitol Hill." The gist of each article is that Congress never had it so good. Millionaires abound. Half of Congress now consists of millionaires. To have true clout means that you have to be worth around $100 million—Nancy Pelosi territory. The rest of the millionaire members are mere pikers.

Is the abundance of the wealthy a bad thing? Has Congress become a new Richistan, divorced from the concerns of common folk? Both articles suggest that worry is in order. But is it?

To the extent that members of Congress are prospering from their service in government, it should be. If members are engaging in insider trading, then apprehension is warranted. But the mere presence of millionaires is not. For one thing, there seems to be little indication that members are actually voting on the basis of their own wealth. Sure, Republicans favor tax cuts, which they argue end up promoting economic growth. But Democrats, many of whom are also millionaires, are not arguing that the wealthy should be exempt from higher taxes. Instead, they espouse policies that Republicans allege would suffocate growth. The Post contends,

The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented means that there is a greater distance between the economic experience of Americans and those of lawmakers.

Not necessarily. It's possible that a Congressman began his or her career with little or no economic means and then, either through luck or assiduity, became wealthy. An argument could also be made that a wealthy lawmaker might be more independent of business or other interests than one who was wholly dependent on donations from lobbyists and corporations. But it's also the case that, more often than not, it takes a lot of money to run for Congress. If voters were really apoplectic about wealth disparities, then they would fundamentally alter the manner in which elections themselves are conducted, drastically shortening the campaign season and forbidding most advertising on television and the radio. Another way to ensure that Congress is not simply a preserve for the wealthy would be to curtail its legislative session, something that Texas governor Rick Perry appeared to endorse. But these are all improbable suggestions that will never be enacted.

The real problem with well-heeled Congressmen is that the optics are bad. When the country is suffering, it doesn't like the idea of what amounts to a modern-day Roman patrician class. Whether the concerns about prosperity in Congress will get much traction might prove another barometer of the concerns about wealth inequality in America, which have been mounting over the past year. The wealthy form a convenient target for populist animus—Franklin Roosevelt announced that he welcomed the brickbats being hurled by plutocrats—"I welcome their hatred," he said in 1936 at Madison Square Garden.

But in America, concerns about the wealthy have proven spasmodic. Overall wealth inequality has diminished somewhat since the 1990s as a result of the gyrations of the stock market and the battering the real-estate sector has suffered. It's unclear that personal wealth has greatly altered the stance of either political party. Congress deserves to be flayed for many reasons, but its wealth is probably not one of them.