As the debate over taxes raged, one compromise the Senate rejected would have extended tax cuts for all Americans, except those who are millionaires. In the words of the bill's author, Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, "Do we want to extend those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires at a time of huge deficits? I would argue vociferously we shouldn't."
But did you know that 261 members of the current Congress -- nearly half the House and Senate -- are millionaires? Did you know that 58 of them have assets worth over $10 million?
When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell states enthusiastically, "I think it's pretty clear now that taxes are not going up on anybody in the middle of this recession," including millionaires, perhaps it's worth noting that McConnell's personal fortune is about $30 million.
When soon-to-be House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) describes as "chicken crap" the notion of even talking about allowing Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans to expire, it may be relevant to point out that Boehner's net worth is between $2 and $5 million. By Congressional standards, Boehner is a virtual pauper, listed as only the 87th richest member of the House.
These figures come from the legislators' own disclosures, as required by law, and published by the Center for Responsive Politics. They don't include the value of the lawmakers' homes or their government salaries, which for members of Congress start at $174,000 a year.
According to the data, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is the wealthiest in Congress, with a net worth of between $156 million and $451 million. The range is so wide due to a quirk in the requirements that allows lawmakers to estimate certain assets at both their lowest and highest likely value.
John Kerry (D-Mass.) is the most affluent member of the Senate. His assets, when combined with those of his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry and her ketchup fortune, give the couple about a $239 million net worth.
It's tempting to say that such enormous wealth among so many elected officials makes them inclined to look more favorably on things that benefit the wealthy, such as tax breaks for millionaires, although that's not the case with Kerry and many Democrats. On the other hand, it's often argued that if a politician is wealthy, he or she is less vulnerable to financial pressure from powerful special interests.
Regardless, the personal wealth of Congressional members continues to expand year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases. This is particularly vexing when you consider the nature of personal investments lawmakers have in private industry. Just among banks, for example, 69 members of Congress are investors in Bank of America, 45 in Wells Fargo, and 44 in J. P. Morgan Chase.
Fundamental to all concerns is that extraordinary affluence among lawmakers distances them from the average citizens they represent. This will be tested when the new Congress convenes. The lame ducks will be replaced by a flock that, according to financial disclosures, includes quite a few lucky ducks.
Most of the freshman are Republicans who campaigned as champions of Main Street, yet the group includes many millionaires. Diane Black, for example, newly elected in Tennessee, has combined assets with her husband worth upwards of $33 million. Richard Berg from North Dakota lists assets above $20 million. According to an analysis by The Politico newspaper, 25 percent of the newly-elected Republicans in Congress are millionaires.
It would be quite a sight if every time a vote came up affecting the finances of wealthy Americans, the millionaires on Capitol Hill had to recuse themselves. Perhaps, as a more practical alternative, our richest lawmakers could at least imagine on such occasions that they weren't quite so fortunate.
Peter Funt is a writer, public speaker, and the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.