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Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the idea that the wealthy are part of the political ruling class dates back to the American Revolution. The nation’s founders, he said, were typically wealthy.
But Kondik said living the lifestyle of a congressman carries with it big costs. Lawmakers typically maintain two residences — one in their home district and one in D.C. — and the latter city has one of the highest costs of living in the country.
While lawmakers don’t always mirror their constituents financially, the bigger issue in politics is a level of empathy, Kondik said, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with wealth.
“Is it easier to have empathy if you’re wealthy or poor? Who knows,” he said.
The newspaper’s analysis was done by comparing the lawmakers’ 2016 personal financial disclosure data to the first report made after each entered Congress. A true picture isn’t possible because lawmakers are only required to disclose their assets in ranges — between $15,000 and $50,000, for example.
Any picture of how much a lawmaker is worth is a sketch, at best, and a fuzzy one at that. To determine the net worth of lawmakers for this piece, the newspaper added up the minimum level of all assets as well as the maximum level of all assets, subtracted liabilities that weren’t related to their personal mortgages, and then used the average to determine net worth. Watchdog groups like the Center for Responsive Politics use the same methodology.
While incomplete, the data is useful in showing how wealthy individual members of Congress are, and where that wealth comes from. The disclosures required of lawmakers stem from a concern over conflicts of interest, since Congress often passes bills that benefit certain companies and industries.
The delegation is no anomaly: A 2014 Center for Responsive Politics study found that more than 50 percent of members of Congress were millionaires.
The organization, which tracks money in politics, worries about the implications of such a large income gap between Congress and the people they serve.
Most lawmakers “haven’t ever needed to worry about the problems and pressures that most lower-to-middle-class Ohioans face — from securing gainful employment to having enough money saved to deal with unforeseen shocks,” said the CRP’s Alex Baumgart.
“It’s ultimately up to the American people to decide if the millionaires they elect to Congress are doing an adequate job of representing their interests.”
Renacci stands alone
While 10 members of the state’s congressional delegation reported assets of more than $1 million in their most recent filing, the total asset figure is skewed by one member: Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Wadsworth.
Renacci reported assets of between $34 million and $94 million, easily eclipsing any other member of the delegation and surpassing the combined asset totals reported by Ohio’s two U.S. senators and 15 other House members.
Renacci, who is running for governor, claimed investments ranging from Raytheon to Timken to Home Depot. He has owned some 60 companies during his business career, including auto and motorcycle dealerships, nursing homes and minor league sports teams. He has said he first ran for Congress to bring “commonsense business principles to Washington.”
James Slepian, a spokesman for Renacci, said the congressman grew up on the cusp of poverty in western Pennsylvania, and that his wealth was entirely of his own making. He is routinely mentioned among the top 15 richest members of Congress.
“Jim understands firsthand the challenges families and small businesses face because he’s lived them, and that’s the life perspective that has shaped his approach to leadership and service,” Slepian said.
Members of Congress are required to fill out by May 15 each year a form detailing their personal finances, including assets and liabilities. In addition to identifying any potential conflicts of interest, the forms are beneficial in determining the degree to which lawmakers mirror the public they serve.
And at least in terms of wealth, they don’t mirror them at all.
A 2014 report by the Center for Responsive Politics found at least 268 of the 534 members of Congress — roughly half — had an average net worth of $1 million or more. By comparison, family household income in Ohio last year was about $65,000.
Also, Ohio’s delegation — almost to a person — has also gotten wealthier since entering Congress. Take Renacci. When he was a candidate for Congress in 2009, he reported a net worth of $24 million after subtracting his liabilities from his assets. By 2016, however, he was claiming a net worth of $64 million, more than doubling in size.
Others, too, saw a big increase. Columbus Democrat Rep. Joyce Beatty claimed a net worth of $2.5 million when she ran for Congress in 2011. By 2016, her net worth had grown to $4.03 million.
Beatty, a first-generation college graduate with working-class roots, said her background has helped her understand constituents from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I think it’s important to work with the wealthiest and poorest,” she said. “I think my constituents appreciate that I understand both sides.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, had minimal assets when he came to Congress in 2003 — between $1,000 and $15,000, with between $25,002 and $65,000 in debt. But in 2013, that changed: He got married, wrote two books and sold a house.
In 2016, his assets were between $184,010 and $512,000 – in part because of his wife’s retirement and in part because of the potential earnings from the two books he’d written. Several of those assets were in the form of college funds for his child and two stepchildren, according to his disclosure forms.
The base pay for members of Congress is $174,000, a figure that hasn’t changed since 2009.
In at least one case, a change in marital status impacted the reported wealth totals. When Rep. Mike Turner came to Congress in 2002, he claimed between $153,026 and $695,000 worth of assets on his financial disclosure form. In 2016, he claimed between $2.8 million and $10.3 million. The difference? Turner married an energy lobbyist in 2015, and her assets as well as his were listed on his 2016 financial disclosure form.
Turner earlier this year filed for divorce, which is still pending. In a filing this week, Turner asked the court to deny his wife’s motion to keep her financial information confidential, noting that he must disclose his information annually to the U.S. House.
“Defendant (Majida Turner) has unlimited financial resources compared to the Plaintiff, as the Defendant has consistently earned over One Million Dollars annually,” Rep. Turner’s filing says. “The Plaintiff financially supports two daughters, both of whom reside with the Plaintiff. In contrast, Defendant has no Dependents.”
The outlier in the analysis was Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who reported a decrease in wealth even as he gained power as a founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Jordan claimed between $133,007 and $396,000 in assets in 2016, down from a range of $148,000 to $446,000 when he was a congressional candidate in 2005. He also claimed liabilities in 2016 that included between $15,002 and $50,000 for a college loan for his daughter. He claimed no liabilities in 2005.
Out of touch?
Common Cause’s Spaulding said the cost of running and re-running for Congress in itself separates lawmakers from the people who they serve.
It costs nearly $2 million to successfully run for Congress, he said, adding, “That election money has to come from somewhere.”
The danger, he said, is the people who fund their campaigns will have better access and opportunities to air their concerns than those “getting by on minimum wage or even middle-class Americans.”
Staff Writer Lynn Hulsey contributed to this story.
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