Freshman House class brings less wealth and different economic perspective to Congress
When wages temporarily stopped for thousands of federal workers during the government shutdown in January, nearly 100 lawmakers signed over or donated their paycheck to show solidarity.
But Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), elected just weeks earlier, literally couldn’t afford the gesture.
“If you’re a member of Congress who can say: ‘I can forgo an entire paycheck,’ more power to you,” she said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. But “this incoming class had probably quite a few people who were not in a position to say I will forgo a paycheck after having not worked for” months because of the demands of the campaign.
More often than not, members of Congress come from a moneyed pedigree, whether they made a fortune in business before starting a political career, married a wealthy spouse or inherited family fortunes. Last year, 40% of the House and Senate were millionaires and the median net worth of lawmakers was more than $511,000, according to a calculation by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
A review of the financial holdings of freshman lawmakers — documents they were required to file when they ran for office — shows that on the whole, the class has more modest means than other elected officials in recent history.
More than 30% of the class has a net worth of under $100,000 and the median is $412,011 — nearly $100,000 less than the entirety of the last Congress.
While the racial and gender diversity of the new freshman class has been well documented, its economic diversity has received less attention.
To be sure, these lawmakers are now pulling in salaries of $174,000, putting them in the top 3% of salaries in the United States as of 2017. But in some cases, their modest economic backgrounds — including student debt, home mortgages and small savings — suggest they could bring a different perspective to Congress.
Several freshman members said they learned during their campaigns why Congress is largely made up of wealthy people: Running for office takes up a lot of time that isn’t spent at work, bringing home a paycheck.
Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), who says he and his wife lived off of $17,000 last year, said his middle-class upbringing was something that connected him with his constituents.
“People are in a phase right now in politics where they’re looking for genuine representation, and a lot of people feel like they’ve been cut out of the process,” Golden said. “So I think a natural reaction is that people want someone of their own to represent them in Congress.”
The freshmen are coming to Washington as congressional pay comes under greater scrutiny. For the first time in a decade, key Republican and Democratic House members were recently seriously considering voting to give themselves a raise, citing worry that the salary — while high by national standards — was not enough to allow lawmakers to stay in public service.
Lawmakers’ salaries also set a cap for their staffers, prompting some experienced Hill aides to leave for more lucrative jobs lobbying or working elsewhere in the private sector.
But the House effort to approve a pay hike faded when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the GOP-controlled Senate would not be doing the same, making the effort politically toxic.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attracted significant attention — and criticism — in November when she said she couldn’t afford rent in both New York and Washington before her first congressional paycheck, which wouldn’t come until Feb. 1. But she’s not the only one.
There are freshman lawmakers like Golden who say they were living on credit cards in the months or weeks before their first congressional paychecks. Some didn’t have reliable or affordable health insurance.
When she decided to run for office early last year, Davids said she cleared out her 401(k) — nearly $20,000 — and moved in with her mom so that she could rent out her own house to cover her personal expenses.
“It put a knot in my stomach for sure,” she said of the tax hit she faced for removing money from her account before retirement. But she didn’t see any other way to run for office and pay her bills. “I’m not from a wealthy family. I don’t have my own independent wealth.”
Golden, a retired Marine who doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t live paycheck to paycheck, says wealthy lawmakers may not realize the full effect of their policy decisions.
He recounted driving hours to a Veterans Affairs facility in Maine for his healthcare after he left the military, and receiving an immediate cash reimbursement for his gas to get back home. One day — in an effort to streamline the system — reimbursements were switched to electronic payments, made a couple of weeks later. The small change nearly left him stranded.
“Literally there were times when I would get there knowing I was going to need that money to put gas in my tank to get home,” he said.
That experience, he said, enables him to bring a different perspective to congressional debates. “I am someone who could look at that [kind of policy,] and say: ‘Wait a minute. Someone might actually need that reimbursement in the moment.’ That’s the kind of thing that is … almost unfathomable to some members.”
Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), who at 30 is one of the youngest freshman lawmakers, argues her middle-class district is best represented by someone of the same background.
She was renting her one-bedroom house from a family member, made $25,000 a year as a state representative and had a 10-year-old – but fully paid off – Chevy Malibu when she decided to run for office.
“It’s Iowa — that’s the reality of my state,” she said. “We have one of the lowest wage states of the entire country and you’ve got people working their tails off every day trying to make it.”
A review of the financial disclosures of the 89 members of the freshman class shows there are several members like Golden: 30% have net worths of under $100,000.
Disclosure forms don’t paint a complete picture of a lawmaker’s finances, however. Candidates and lawmakers are only required to post ranges for their assets — such as savings accounts, stock portfolios and rental properties — and liabilities, such as student loans, mortgages and other debts. They also have to disclose the assets of their spouses and dependent children. The Times evaluated net worths based on the minimum of those ranges.
Candidates don’t need to post the value of their primary residence unless they make money off of it, such as by renting it out. But mortgages must be disclosed, which can make people look worse off than they are. And in some cases, they can report that the value of an asset is unknown, such as a business or the NFL pensions that former football players Reps. Colin Allred (D-Texas) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) will be entitled to when they are older.
Still, the disclosures can provide a glimpse of a person’s finances. Fourteen freshman lawmakers reported a negative net worth, citing mortgages, student loans and other debts that surpass their assets. Some reported no stock portfolio or other assets at all. Eighteen lawmakers reported student loan debt. Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) reported she briefly collected unemployment in 2017 after the end of the Obama administration, where she had worked for the Department of Health and Human Services.
But the class is not a monolith. There are several lawmakers who reported net worths well into the millions of dollars. Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda), who won a $266 million lottery jackpot in 2010, has a minimum net worth of $35 million.
The public has long viewed politicians as out of touch with their own pocketbook concerns. Presidential campaigns have fumbled over pricey haircuts, windsurfing hobbies and multiple homes. In a 1992 debate, former President George H.W. Bush didn’t know the price of a gallon of milk — a fumble that Democrats said proved he could not understand the concerns of most Americans.
Before she was even confronted with the question of whether to give up her paycheck during January’s government shutdown, Davids had to fight the built-in perception among voters on the campaign trail that she must be wealthy merely because she was seeking office.
“We just assume our elected officials, at least our members of Congress, don’t know what it’s like to work and live paycheck to paycheck,” she said, adding that she found voters would be surprised to hear that she had student loans and, like them, once couldn’t afford health insurance with a $600 monthly premium.
While watching his bank account shrink last year, Golden realized the public perception that people aspire to come to Washington to get rich is wrong: Most candidates start out that way.
“How many people are willing to make the sacrifice of making $17,000 in a year in order to do something as big as running for Congress,” he said. “It’s easier for people who have wealth already to run.”
Times staff writer Caroline S. Engelmayer in Washington contributed to this report.
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