Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have separate reports today about the widening wealth gap between members of Congress and the people they represent. Almost half of all Congresspeople are millionaires and their median net worth has climbed to $913,000, compared to $100,000 for the rest of America households. According to the Post, that number drops to $725,000 when excluding home equity (and adjusting for inflation), but the same median figure for American families is just $20,500. And that gap has only grown wider in recent years.
The biggest reason for the disparity is the sheer cost of running for office, which is both a full-time job and an expensive undertaking. The average successful House race costs $1.4 million to stage (the average Senate campaign is almost $10 million), and candidates are allowed — and often need — to donate as much as they want to their own effort. The costs of advertising and travel make it increasingly difficult for anyone who doesn't already have money to get their name out there. There have also been concerns raised recently about the ability of politicians to profit from their position, both through contacts made and the ability to trade stock based on privileged information.
Even putting aside the questions of influence and corruption, the biggest concern is that those elected to Congress are more out of touch with the world of their constituents than ever before. How can lawmakers be expected to look out for the interests of everyday citizens when the biggest issues facing them — unemployment, health care, wages — are unknown to most of those who are making the laws? Or worse when addressing those issues means directly contradicting their own interests, as when millionaires are asked to vote on a "millionaire's tax"? The biggest political movement of the last year, Occupy Wall Street, has been devoted almost exclusively to addressing the gap between rich and poor, but it's hard to see how any change becomes possible when that gap is greatest among those in a position to do something about it.