Economic pain felt less in Congress

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.

The odds were long. At 34, Myers was the shift foreman 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 considerably since then.

An analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post details the changes.

Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 21⁄2 times, 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.

“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, an affable former football recruit to Notre Dame, 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 runs in the 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. And asked about tax breaks for oil companies, he notes that when corporations profit, people with pensions and portfolios do, too.

The growing financial comfort of Congress relative to most Americans is consistent with the general trends in the United States toward inequality of wealth: Members of Congress have long been wealthier than average Americans, and in recent decades the wealth of the wealthiest Americans has outpaced that of the average.

Another possible reason for the growing wealth of Congress is that running a campaign has become much, much more expensive, making it more likely that wealthy people, who can donate substantially to their own campaigns, gain office.

About a decade ago, academics studying the effect of income inequality on politics noticed a striking fact: The growth of income inequality has tracked very closely with measures of political polarization, which has been gauged using the average difference between the liberal/conservative scores for Republican and Democratic members of the House. The scores come from a database widely used by academics.

Moreover, there is at least some research that shows that members of Congress bring their life experiences to bear when they vote. Members of Congress with a higher proportion of daughters, for example, are more likely to take liberal positions on women’s issues, according to a 2006 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Ebonya Washington.

Similarly, a representative’s occupation before being elected influences how liberal or conservative he or she votes, according to an analysis of more than 50 years of congressional votes by Duke University professor Nick Carnes.

Carnes said that while party affiliation is the strongest determinant of congressional voting, “the differences between legislators of different occupational backgrounds are pretty striking. People tend to bring the worldview that comes with their occupation with them into office,” he said.

When discussing his wealth and how it came to him, Kelly, who was called “Millionaire Mike” during the election campaign, grows animated.

“The way my dad taught me was pretty basic: You have to kill more than you eat. You gotta wake up every day before anyone else, you better get to work and you better stay later than everybody else,” he said. “I’m a rich guy because I’ve worked hard. I gotta work every fricking day. Listen, nobody gives it to you. I compete. I’m not the only guy selling hot dogs at the ballpark, okay?”

Today, when asked about the effect of wealth on members of Congress, Myers is characteristically detached.

“I guess I could see where someone who made a lot from personal risk taking and business initiative could have a different outlook. Even if people come with biases, I’m not sure they’re evil biases. I don’t have any problem with someone who has a lot of money. But I don’t have any doubt that my perspective was different from someone who had more money.”