7 min read

Members of Congress shouldn’t have to be wealthy

Lawmakers shouldn’t be mocked for coming from modest means, whether they’re Mike Johnson or AOC.
Members of Congress shouldn’t have to be wealthy
Speaker Mike Johnson in a meeting last year. (Johnson’s office)

Good morning! It’s Monday, November 6, 2023. The 2024 elections are 365 days — exactly one year — away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

It’s going to be a packed political week: Today, Donald Trump is set to take the stand in his New York civil fraud trial. Tuesday is Election Day. And Wednesday will be the third Republican presidential debate.

But first, something completely different...

Whenever a new character waltzes onto the national stage, a slew of news stories about their life inevitably follows, as journalists race to unearth biographical details and controversial episodes from their past. This is doubly true if the new character is second in line to be president of the United States.

Accordingly, newly minted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has provided plenty of fodder for reporters and opposition researchers, with stories trickling out about his anti-gay editorials, his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, and his leadership of a law school that didn’t exist.

Last week, the latest media salvo about Johnson arrived: that he isn’t wealthy enough?

In a story labeled “EXCLUSIVE,” the Daily Beast — a left-leaning online publication — reported that seven years of Johnson’s financial disclosure forms “reveal a financial life that, in the context of his role as a congressman and now speaker, appears extraordinarily precarious.” Johnson has never even reported having a bank account, the outlet added with an unmistakable note of suspicion.

Incidentally, a few days earlier, a conservative news website had tried to launch a similar attack against Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), taking aim at her financial status by mocking her acceptance of a new housing subsidy available to members of the House.

“Taxpayers have doled out over $8,700 to pay for the democratic socialist’s lodging and meals throughout the first half of 2023,” the Washington Free Beacon reported. (As of this year, members of Congress have been able to take up to $34,000 out of their existing allowance to reimburse their meals and lodging while in Washington, expenses they previously had to pay for out of pocket. 113 Democrats and 104 Republicans have used the subsidy so far, running up a combined bill of $1.4 million.)

Let’s get a few things out of the way. First, if Johnson is hiding a bank account that he should have reported on his disclosure forms but didn’t, as the Daily Beast seems to insinuate at times, that would obviously be a problem.

Second, millionaire members of Congress probably do not need to be taking advantage of the new housing subsidy available to them. According to the Free Beacon, “at least 17 millionaire Democrats” have accepted the optional reimbursement, including House Minority Whip Katherine Clark (estimated net worth: $6.8 million).

But AOC is not a millionaire — and there is no evidence to suggest that Johnson is secretly one either. The Daily Beast eventually acknowledges this, granting that Johnson likely hasn’t reported a bank account because House rules only require disclosure if a member’s accounts exceed $5,000 in value. “It’s unlikely Johnson doesn’t actually have a bank account,” the Daily Beast says. “What’s more likely is Johnson lives paycheck to paycheck—so much so that he doesn’t have enough money in his bank account to trigger the checking account disclosure rules for members of Congress.”

But then the outlet tries to spin this into a negative regardless, essentially suggesting that Johnson’s lack of wealth could make him a target of bribery. “One of the reasons we have these financial disclosures is to know whether politicians are having financial difficulties — which could make them ripe for influence buying,” Jordan Libowitz, of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, is quoted as saying.

Apparently, it would be better to have a House speaker with a net worth like Nancy Pelosi’s ($114.6 million, partially derived from her husband’s stock trades in companies overlapping with her work) because at least Pelosi, in this thinking, is too wealthy to be bought.

It’s striking that, in the space of just a few days, publications from the left and right both saw fit to look down on members of Congress with relatively little wealth.

Johnson and AOC, after all, are two members of a shrinking group: members of Congress with negative net worths. As of the most recent calculations by Open Secrets, a group that tracks campaign finance, 32 members of Congress had estimated net worths that were $0 or less. Many more lawmakers — 205 — were millionaires. (Johnson’s estimated net worth as of 2018 was -$32,501. AOC’s was -$8,499.)

Perhaps the numbers in Congress wouldn’t be as lopsided — or unrepresentative (there are more American households with negative net worths than there are millionaire households) — if lawmakers weren’t automatically viewed with suspicion for having little in their bank accounts, like Johnson, or mocked for using the resources available to them, like AOC.

If Americans want more lawmakers of modest means, it will probably require more steps like the new congressional housing subsidies to be taken.

The Free Beacon presented the subsidy as a handout Democrats secretly devised before surrendering power — “As one of their last actions with their majority, Democrats quietly tucked [the] provision into internal House rules” — but the House Administration Committee actually approved the change unanimously, without dissent from either party.

The idea first emerged from the bipartisan recommendation of the now-defunct Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which had heard testimony from lawmakers like former Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS), who said he stepped down from Congress because he was unable to support his son with Fragile X Syndrome on a government salary.

“One of the key factors was I knew that if I stayed, I would not be able to take care of my son and my family,” Harper testified.

Because here’s the dirty truth at the heart of both the Daily Beast and Free Beacon stories: Serving in Congress is expensive. Yes, lawmakers receive a salary ($174,000) that is well above the national average — but, unlike most Americans, they are expected to maintain (and constantly travel between) two residences: one in their home district, and one in Washington, D.C., which has one of the highest costs of living of any city in America.

It’s no coincidence that so many members of Congress are millionaires, or that the current ranks of the House include both a Levi Strauss heir and a Qualcomm heiress. As Harper testified, it can be very difficult to run for or serve in Congress if you aren’t independently wealthy, especially knowing that you can make many times your salary in the private sector. (Of course, this is also why many cash-strapped former members leave Congress to become lobbyists, creating a whole new set of problems.)

Many members of Congress on the less wealthy side of the financial spectrum end up sleeping in their Capitol offices to save money; Johnson, who is now two heartbeats away from the White House, is reportedly one of them.

What are some solutions to this problem? The most commonly offered answer is obvious: paying Congress more. The congressional salary hasn’t been increased since 2009, even as the cost of living in D.C. has skyrocketed. If lawmakers made a salary closer to what they’d generate in the private sector, perhaps people from a broader array of backgrounds would run for office, leading to a more financially diverse Congress — stocked with more people who are truly the best for the job, not just those who could afford it.

According to Stanford political scientist Andrew Hall, that theory has proven true in the “laboratories of democracy”: state legislatures with higher salaries have yielded less polarization. When lawmakers are paid less, he told Vox in 2019, “you’re encouraging wealthy ideologues to run for office.”

Another proposal that’s fun to imagine is a congressional dorm building, as Republican strategist Rory Cooper has suggested. Instead of reimbursing lawmakers for their D.C. housing, this proposal goes, we could mandate that they live together in a government-funded building in Washington — making it cheaper for the lawmakers, and possibly leading to some much-needed fellowship in Congress.

Many members of Congress already live together (Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer’s D.C. pad even inspired a show on Amazon Prime); this would make it a requirement.

In some ways, this idea would be a throwback to an earlier era in Congress, when members lived together in boardinghouses. In fact, several political scientists have suggested that entire voting networks emerged out of these living arrangements, with members of Congress more likely to vote together because they lived together.

At the nation’s founding, all the members of the Supreme Court also lived together in a boardinghouse (imagine the dinner table conversations!) Chief Justice John Marshall believed that living together fostered unanimity and a more cooperative court.

Members of Congress who aren’t wealthy shouldn’t be mocked. They should be helped, and we should be trying to find ways for there to be more of them. Maybe Congress would even grow less polarized in the process.

More news to know.

Trump Leads in 5 Critical States as Voters Blast Biden, Times/Siena Poll Finds / NYT

Trump and allies plot revenge, Justice Department control in a second term / WaPo

Blinken shuttles from the West Bank to Iraq trying to contain the fallout from the Israel-Hamas war Biden’s 2024 team roiled by Israel-Hamas war / Axios

Fresh revelations contradict Joe Biden’s sweeping denials on Hunter / Politico

Republican who voted to impeach Trump unveils Senate bid in Michigan / The Hill

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will travel to New Castle, Delaware, where he will announce new infrastructure investments. Vice President Harris will hold a call with foreign leaders to discuss the Israel-Hamas war.

Congress: The Senate will vote to advance Monica Bertagnolli’s nomination to be Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The House will vote on six bills, including a measure that would lay the groundwork for a Women’s Suffrage Monument on the National Mall.

Courts: Donald Trump is set to testify today in his $250 million civil fraud trial in New York City. On the other side of the country, jury selection will start in the trial of Paul Pelosi’s attacker in San Francisco.

Campaign Trail: Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) is expected to endorse Ron DeSantis today, a major coup for the Florida governor in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

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