Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
For the first time ever, a majority of America's elected officials in Congress are millionaires.
"Of 534 current members of Congress, at least 268 had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012," a new analysis of financial disclosure forms by The Center for Responsive Politics explains. "The median net worth for the 530 current lawmakers who were in Congress as of the May filing deadline was $1,008,767 -- an increase from the previous year when it was $966,000."
The Senate is where most of the monied members reside, with a median net worth of its current members coming to over $2.7 million. Members of the House tended to be somewhat less wealthy, with a median income of $896,004. With the House and Senate totals averaged together, however, the median net worth in Congress comes out to $1,008,767.
Democratic members came out slightly ahead of Republicans by the same measuring stick. The median income of Republican members totaled $1,000,510, whereas Democrats pulled in $1,105,504, the Center found. Still, the most wealthy member of Congress in 2012 was a Republican: Rep. Darrell Issa of California, with a net worth of $464 million, largely due to profits from his car alarm business. The poorest member of Congress in 2012 was also a Republican: Rep. David Valadao of California, whose disclosure showed a net worth of negative $12.1 million due to loans taken out to support a family farm, the Center said. That number was an improvement over his 2011 filing, when he was $19 million in the hole.
All told, the 2012 financial disclosure forms showed a 4.4 percent increase in median net worth for all of Congress over 2011, with the Senate taking a 10.8 percent bump and the House landing a 4.6 percent raise.
The Center's analysis could not be more timely. President Obama said recently that fighting income inequality is "the defining challenge of our time," calling on Congress to raise the minimum wage, extend unemployment benefits and support the creation of so-called "Promise Zones" in impoverished areas, designed to incentivize private-sector investment and improve access to education.
The president actually won a small bit of praise from Republicans for creating the Promise Zones, which he announced for areas of Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia, southeastern Kentucky, and Oklahoma's Choctaw Nation. Local governments in these specially-designated areas will receive weighted consideration for federal grants to launch community support programs that enhance public education, promote job training and attract outside investment. Obama said that he wants to establish at least 20 of these zones before he leaves office.
At the same time, his administration is pursuing additional free trade agreements that critics say could lead to even greater inequality, much like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of the 1990s. One agreement in particular, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would even give multinational corporations the ability to challenge partner nations' domestic laws and regulations in a supranational system of arbitration. Others worry that breaking down trade barriers with Chile, Vietnam, Peru, Mexico and others would force American workers to directly compete for jobs with extremely low-wage laborers in those countries.
Nevertheless, Obama -- whose net worth is up to $6.8 million -- spent this week demanding his Republican counterparts take his call to battle poverty seriously. "In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty," he said in prepared text. "Far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren't rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides."
Expect to hear more rhetoric like that from the president and leading Democrats, and soon. However, in an election year, making Congress back those words up with action seems a bit more than just a steep climb without significant changes in its membership.