December 27, 2011

In Focus: Lawmakers' wealth leaves voters behind

From 1984 to 2009, House members' adjusted wealth rose 250 percent, while that of families declined a bit.

By PETER WHORISKEY/The Washington Post

One day after his shift at the steel mill, Gary Myers drove home in his 10-year-old Pontiac and told his wife he was going to run for Congress.

CONGRESS WEALTH
click image to enlarge

Gary Myers, a former Pennsylvania steel mill worker, served two terms in Congress starting in 1975. “I don’t have any problem with someone who has a lot of money,” he said. “But I don’t have any doubt that my perspective was different from someone who had more money.”

Sam Wolfe/The Washington Post

CONGRESS WEALTH
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Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., is a wealthy car dealer elected for the first time in 2010. “I’m a rich guy because I’ve worked hard,” he said. “I gotta work every fricking day. Listen, nobody gives it to you.”

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

The odds were long. At 34, Myers was the shift foreman at the "hot mill" of the Armco plant in Butler, Pa. He had no political experience, little or no money, and he was a Republican in a district that tilted Democrat.

But standing in the dining room, still in his work clothes, he said he felt voters deserved a better choice.

Three years later, he won.

Back when Myers entered Congress in 1975, it wasn't nearly so unusual for a person with few assets besides a home to win and serve in Congress.

But the financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened since then, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 250 percent, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.

All figures have been adjusted for inflation and exclude home equity, which is not included in congressional reporting. The year 1984 was chosen because it was the earliest for which consistent wealth data were available.

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.

"My mother and I used to joke we were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we rolled into McLean, and we really were," said Michele Myers, the congressman's daughter, now 46. "My dad was driving this awful lime green Ford Maverick, and I bought my clothes at Kmart."

Today, this area of Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh is represented in Congress by another Republican, Mike Kelly, a wealthy car dealer elected for the first time in 2010.

Kelly's dad owned the local Chevrolet and Cadillac dealership in Butler, and Kelly, had worked there since he was a kid. Three years after graduating from college, he married Victoria, an heir to the Phillips oil fortune. He eventually bought and took control of the family car business, and today, the net worth of Kelly and his wife is millions of dollars, according to financial disclosure forms.

Both men refer to their personal life experiences in explaining their political outlook.

Myers, the son of a bricklayer, had worked his way through college to a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, and looked at issues of work and security at least partly through the lens of his own experience. For example, he bucked other Republicans to vote to raise the minimum wage and favored expanding a program to aid workers affected by foreign imports. He said he understood the need for what was then called "the safety net."

Kelly, on the other hand, focuses on the hard work he and his family have done to build the dealership. The government should be run more like a business and laws must be fair to people who strive and succeed. He opposes the estate tax, the inheritance tax levied on the wealthy, because, among other things, he feels he has been overtaxed already. He says unemployment checks make some less willing to go back to work. Asked about tax breaks for oil companies, he notes that when corporations profit, people with pensions and portfolios do, too.

(Continued on page 2)

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