A couple weeks ago, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) announced that over half the Members of Congress who filed disclosure forms for 2012 are worth more than $1 million. Naturally, the press had a field day with this.
“Congress is loaded, if you weren’t already aware,” wrote Andrew Katz of Time.
“It’s official—Congress is a millionaires’ club. For the first time ever, most members of Congress are worth at least a cool million,” wrote Emily Heil of The Washington Post.
Rasmussen Polling ran a survey asking how people felt about a majority of members of Congress being millionaires.
Sorry to spoil all the fun, but the media reports surrounding the Members’ wealth are highly problematic for a couple reasons.
The first reason they are potentially misleading is that they do not adequately capture the ambiguities of the disclosure forms for Members of Congress. Members of Congress are required to report the income over $200, assets, liabilities over $10,000, and transactions worth more than $1,000. However, the financial disclosure forms provide several ranges of financial data, and the Members must simply indicate which band their item in question fell between. In other words, you can’t be very precise when talking about the Members’ fortunes.
Since there were ranges listed, the Center for Responsive Politics was able to calculate the maximum and minimum that the Members are worth, and then averaged the two numbers. The averages were generally the numbers that were reported in the press. Even the CRP’s blog post on the topic failed to mention the wide range that Members could actually be worth, although they discussed it elsewhere.
Reporting the average the Member’s could be worth is far and away better than simply reporting the maximum that they could have, but it is unclear how accurately the average would predict the number of millionaires in Congress. The underlying assumption for using the average is that, within a given range, the person’s actual wealth is essentially random. In other words, each dollar value within the range indicated on the disclosure form is equally likely to be the Member’s actual wealth. That is a reasonable assumption, but would it be surprising if it were false? Probably not, but that is a question trained financial analysts could examine better than we can.
It also seems that not all averages are created equal. The ranges were not uniform in value, and the higher you go, the larger the range. In one there could be a $1000 difference between the upper and lower limits, but in the next, there could be a $14,000 difference. Further up the scale, the range could be mind-numbingly large (think $25,000,000), and the topmost category did not have any limit at all—$50,000,000 and more. Thus, at the lower ranges, we would expect that it would be more likely for a Member’s actual wealth to be closer to the average than at the higher ranges. But as you go higher, the murkier it becomes. For instance, they have calculated that Representative Vern Buchanan is the 9th wealthiest Member of Congress, but also that he could possibly be in debt by $58,000,000. With a range that large, it’s hard to know how worthwhile the average is.
If we wanted to be more rigorous in our estimation of Members’ wealth, we could, at best, predict the maximum and minimum number of millionaires in Congress. But it is not clear what else we can say with any certainty about congressional wealth, unless Members of Congress were required to release their income tax forms, which many of them do for campaign purposes. In fact, an interesting study would be comparing the CRP findings to the tax returns actually released in the 2012 congressional campaign.
The second problem with a lot of the reporting on the Members’ disclosure forms is that it fosters an unrealistic understanding of the relationship between political positions and personal wealth. The reporting on the CRP’s findings have prompted all sorts of cynical remarks. For instance, the Center for Responsive Politics itself writes:
Members of Congress have long been far wealthier than the typical American, but the fact that now a majority of members — albeit just a hair over 50 percent — are millionaires represents a watershed moment at a time when lawmakers are debating issues like unemployment benefits, food stamps and the minimum wage, which affect people with far fewer resources, as well as considering an overhaul of the tax code.
“Despite the fact that polls show how dissatisfied Americans are with Congress overall, there’s been no change in our appetite to elect affluent politicians to represent our concerns in Washington, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center. “Of course, it’s undeniable that in our electoral system, candidates need access to wealth to run financially viable campaigns, and the most successful fundraisers are politicians who swim in those circles to begin with.”
A fair interpretation of such remarks is that they imply Members of Congress will have less empathy for the poor, and therefore be more likely to disadvantage them further through the laws they enact. This is an overblown concern. Just ask any Democrat on the list. You can easily argue that Democratic policies harm the poor, but it’s a lot harder to argue that they don’t actually care about them. Yet, the average Democrat in Congress is wealthier than the average Republican. Going further, even if a wealthy Member does support cutting welfare spending, it does not mean they care about the poor. It could be because they don’t believe it’s economically prudent to increase the deficit, which would hurt the poor in the long run. Or they could oppose these programs because they are concerned that too much government aid reduces a person to dependence on the dole. If you need any proof that wealthy conservatives do empathize with the poor, simply take a look at the number who do humanitarian work. For instance, President George W. Bush has spent his retirement in African development. Or as CNN reporter Robyn Curnow wrote, “Bush’s harshest critics might be surprised by this side of the former president.” Even the Left’s bêtes noir, the Koch brothers, pour out tons of their wealth for the good of others. David Koch, for instance, has supported cancer research across the country, including at MIT, Johns Hopkins, and the famous Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Oh, and the ballet too. Granted, neither President Bush nor David Koch are Members of Congress, but they show that great wealth does not mean a person does not empathize with those in need.
We don’t deny, of course, that politicians can be tempted to use their office for personal gain and enrichment. It’s been done in the past, and it will be done in the future. That would be a real news story, worthy of substantial investigation. But the mere fact that Members of have substantial reserves of wealth need not be cause for alarm.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the heir to a family fortune cosponsored a major education reform bill with the son of an Ohio bar owner who worked his way through college washing floors in the middle of the night. If we believed in stereotypes, how could you explain Senator Edward Kennedy working so successfully with Speaker John Boehner on “No Child Left Behind?”