Congress: They Really Are Different – And Richer

By Dan Beckmann

Oct 10, 2006 3:14pm

ABC’s John Cochran Reports: "The rich are different from you and me." That’s what the author F. Scott Fitzgerald told us. His literary rival, Ernest Hemingway, agreed: "Yes, they have more money." Well, if they are right, then members of Congress are different from most Americans.

A new report from the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics finds that at least 35 percent of members of Congress are millionaires; that compares with 1% of the general population. The average minimum net worth of House members is $2.4 million; in the Senate it’s $8.9 million. We can’t know precisely how rich they are, because they are only required to disclose within wide ranges the exact value of their assets and liabilities.

They may be richer than the people who vote for and against them, but CPR acting Executive Director Sheila Krumholz says: "The finances of Washington’s powerful look in some ways like the average American’s. They keep their money in checking accounts and mutual funds. They, too, have home mortgages. The big difference is: Politicians have a lot more money."

That’s not the only difference. Most Americans cannot legislate about matters affecting their investments. Congress can. The CPR study notes that members invest in, among other things, real estate, pharmaceuticals and health products, computers and Internet, the oil and gas industry, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco.

People who work on Capitol Hill are also different in another way: they get a lot of free travel. CPR tracked about 2,800 trips by lawmakers and their aides from early 2005 through 2006. One example: the study found that "during their January, 2006 recess, members and aides accepted $90,000 in free transportation, lodging and meals to attend the American Association of Airport Executives’ conference in Hawaii."

The report says "Senate Agriculture Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-GA.) and his staff logged more trips in the current database than anyone, to spend time with peanut growers, cotton growers and meat packers." CPR says "On their trip reports, Chambliss’s aides repeatedly neglected to fill in the line saying where they went."

Kurmholz says many of the trips that lawmakers are "legitimate, worthwhile fact-finding missions, to be sure, but many others appear to be nothing more than junkets." Congressional junkets have a long history. But members may show more discretion in the future about which trips they really want to take. As the CPR study remarks: "The influence-peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff has raised public scrutiny of the often-lavish trips that Congress takes on private interests’ tabs."

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