Wednesday, December 28, 2011

As America gets poorer, Congress gets richer

In a previous post, I commented on how the president and Congress seem to primarily be working for the big guys. Big government has seen its power grow dramatically; Wall Street has been raking in dough; wealthy individuals and corporations can take advantage of numerous tax loopholes. Meanwhile, middle class jobs are being scuttled by powerful special interests such as the NLRB (in the case of Boeing) and the green lobby (in the case of Keystone XL).

One probable reason for this? Congress is populated overwhelmingly by the rich--and is getting richer while the country gets poorer. As you can see from the chart to the right, between 2004 and 2010 the median net worth of Congress grew by 15 percent while the median net worth of all Americans fell by 8 percent. Even more blatantly, the richest 10% of Congress saw their net worth increase by 33%, while the net worth of the richest 10% of Americans was essentially flat. In other words, if the Occupiers think that Congress currently favors the 1 percent, it is probably because Congress is the 1 percent.

Why is Congress getting so much richer? One obvious reason is that they can basically vote themselves a raise every two years regardless of their performance or that of the economy. But the huge windfall for the richest members of Congress is more a result of crony capitalism and insider trading. For example, during the Obamacare debates, John Kerry invested $200,000 in the healthcare company ResMed--and when Obamacare cut Medicare reimbursements, Kerry dumped his holdings in an insurance company that was heavily dependent on Medicare. Similarly, Dick Durbin liquidated a large chunk of his investments in September 2008 after Ben Bernanke warned him of a possible financial crisis. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) once obtained $800,000 in federal earmarks for a road-widening project next to his land holdings.

Clearly, the rising cost of a political campaign (the average successful Senate run cost $10 million in 2010) is a major factor keeping the non-rich out of Congress, as well as giving significantly more power to special-interest donors. But sometimes I feel like we need a third elected branch of government, whose job is to investigate members of the executive and legislative branches and mete out penalties. In sports, athletes who take steroids are suspended for large portions of a season, and colleges that accept illegal donations are forbidden from competing in postseason games. If lawmakers who engage in business or land deals involving a conflict of interest, they need to be fined--or, for repeat offenders, banned from the next election.

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