Why it’s easier to sit in Congress when you’re rich

The last time Open Secrets compiled an analysis of the value of members of Congress, the results were stark. More than half of those who served in the House and Senate were worth more than $1 million; many had net worths that amounted to tens of millions.

There are many reasons for this. People come to Congress from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. But two things are safe to say. The first is that no one in Congress became a millionaire just on a Congressional salary. And two, it seems safe to assume that one of the reasons there are so many millionaires in Congress is that they are better able to get by on what Congress pays.

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It is true that congressional salaries are higher than they have ever been. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has reviewed the history of annual House and Senate salaries, allowing us to illustrate how these earnings have changed over time.

But of course, a $3,000 salary in the 1850s had a lot more buying power than it does today. If we adjust these salaries to 2022 dollars (using the Consumer Price Index and historical data from Oregon State University), we find that congressional salaries were higher than they are now for most of the last century. Since about 1993, there has been a fairly consistent downward trend in a congressman’s inflation-adjusted salary.

Look, I’m definitely not going to say that a $174,000 annual salary is peanuts. This is still more than double the median household income. But that, too, has been declining since the early 1990s. Congress earned more than four times the national median income.

Members of Congress have a duty that most Americans do not: they must have residences both in their home district and in Washington. Considered by median incomes in DC, Congressional pay is even lower, less than double the city median.

We can look at this in a different way. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates earnings for executives and professional workers. From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, members of Congress earned about twice the pre-tax income of professionals in general. Now, Congressional pay is only about a third higher.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) was first elected to Congress in 2018, she observed that she couldn’t afford to move to Washington until her congressional salary kicked in. Many congressmen have been known to simply live in their congressional offices because they can’t afford housing in the city. These are real constraints that clearly have more impact on people who are not already wealthy. It is much less difficult for someone rich to be elected to Congress than for a member of the lower or middle class: less pressure to pay for public transport, to find housing – even less pressure, it seems prudent of suppose, to find peers willing to write big checks for your campaign.

In other words, coming to Congress will not make you rich. But being rich will make it easier for you to come to Congress.


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