Wealthy Congressmen Don't Feel Your Pain

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When you're as wealthy and comfortable as members of Congress are, it's tough to identify with people who are barely making ends meet.

The median net worth of Congress soared 15% from 2004 to 2010, with the average Congressman worth $913,000. Meanwhile, the median net worth of all Americans fell 8% over the same period to $100,000.

Nearly half of the members are millionaires.

Even America's richest 10% haven't fared as well as the typical member of Congress - their net worth in that time span has remained about even.

"There's always a concern that they can't truly understand or relate to the hardships that their constituents feel - that rich people just don't get it," Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, told The New York Times.

In fact, the trend of Congress members growing disproportionately wealthy stretches more than two decades.

According to a Washington Post study of Congressional financial disclosures, the median net worth of a member of the House - excluding home equity - more than doubled between 1984 and 2009, from $280,000 to $725,000. Meanwhile, the comparable wealth of the average American fell from $20,600 to $20,500.

The Post excluded home equity because it is one of several items not reported, or underreported, in congressional disclosure forms.

For example, members need only disclose a maximum of $1 million of assets belonging to a spouse, regardless of how much that spouse may be worth.

Take John Kerry. His wife, Teresa Heinz, inherited the vast Heinz family fortune estimated at about $500 million. That figure never appears higher than $1 million on his disclosure form.

And members don't have to disclose at all the value of their government retirement accounts and any personal property not considered an investment, such as automobiles and artwork.

So as bad as the official numbers sound, with so much wealth unreported, the reality is even worse. When you add in the generous annual salaries of $174,000 and a large assortment of taxpayer-funded perks, the gap between how Congress lives and how the people they're supposed to represent live - people who may have lost their jobs, or who need to keep the heat turned low to be able to afford their utility bill - yawns even wider.

"Whether it'sperks like generous medical and extraordinary pension (full salary) benefits, or taxpayer and constituent financed "fact-finding' trips to places like Hawaii, the Caribbean, Europe, or other luxurious destinations, they enjoy financial rewards that are unavailable to ordinary Americans," said Money Morning Capital Waves Strategist Shah Gilani, who takes on such topics regularly in his freeWall Street Insights & Indictments newsletter.

[Note: You can help eliminate Congressional perks like these by clicking here.]

Even worse, a report last November on CBS News"60 Minutes"showed how many members of Congress have been using "insider information" from legislation they work on to make lucrative stock trades.

After a flurry of talk about curbing the practice by passing the long-dormant "Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge," or STOCK, Act, Congress in December put that bill on hold.

"It's no surprise that so many people grumble about lawmakers being out of touch," Krumholz told MSN Money.

And the problem is likely to keep getting worse. Apart from all the ways that members can use their positions of power to add to their wealth once elected, the growing expense of election campaigns has made it almost impossible for Americans of modest means to run for office.

According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the cost of winning a House seat has quadrupled since 1976, to $1.4 million in inflation-adjusted dollars.

People who are already wealthy can dip into their own pool of money to fund their campaigns, and they also have a built-in circle of rich friends who can supply even more campaign cash.

The United States is rapidly transforming from a government of the people, by the people and for the people into a government of the self-serving rich.

"You can't stop corruption any more than you can bridle people's greed," said Gilani. "Unfortunately as far as many -- far too many -- members of Congress are concerned, where that intersection exists at our nation's capitol, there are no lights, not even a blinking light on the side of the road. We the people need a new bill of rights from Congress."

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