The evidence is clear: Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of Congress and don't believe their representatives share their priorities.
There's plenty of room for debate over whether Congress shares voters' priorities on political and policy issues. But when it comes to personal priorities, at least, voters have good reason to be skeptical of Congress. Most members of Congress simply don't share in the average American experience.
National unemployment has lingered above 8 percent for longer than 28 straight months. Congress, meanwhile, is a club that consists of 245 millionaires. Based on 2009 data, there are currently 66 in the Senate and 179 in the House (among current voting members). So while just 1 percent of Americans are millionaires, 66 percent of senators are millionaires, as are 41 percent of House members.
Even the 2010 elections, with its promises to "take our country back," produced a freshman class of senators with a median net worth of close to $4 million. The median net worth of freshman House members is more than half a million dollars, according the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based, non-partisan research group that tracks the effect of money on elections and public policy.
Multiple factors contribute to this picture. It begins with campaigns that have become increasingly costly to run, making it all the more difficult for a person of modest income to run for office. National parties, looking for ways to bring down their own costs, actively recruit wealthy candidates.
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Once in office, members of Congress enjoy access to connections and information they can use to increase their wealth, in ways that are unparalleled in the private sector. And once politicians leave office, their connections allow them to profit even further.
How wealthy is Congress?
The average estimated personal wealth of congressional members far exceeds the average American's wealth, according to Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "We're talking orders of magnitude," he said -- people with assets in the high six figures in the House and even higher in the Senate.
The Center regularly goes through the time-consuming process of reviewing congressional financial disclosure reports -- which are only filed on paper -- and publishing the information in a reader-friendly online format. Their work has shown that, besides a slight dip between 2007 and 2008, Congress' personal wealth has continued to rise.
"Most Americans are being represented by people who, any way you cut it, are in the elite of the financial elite," Levinthal said.
Can only the wealthy run for Congress?
At the same time that Congress has become more of a millionaires' club, running a congressional campaign has become increasingly costly. There's no empirical evidence to suggest the two are related, but any political operative will tell you that not everyone can afford to run a campaign.
As a congressional candidate, "every waking minute of every day is devoted to that campaign," said Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "It requires an extraordinary amount of time, and it becomes difficult for a lot of people if you have a full-time job... When you've got a mortgage to pay and college tuition and braces to pay for, those kinds of day-to-day, real-life expenses come before putting six months into a campaign."
The amount of money a candidate needs gets larger with each election cycle. The average Senate campaign in 2010 cost $8,002,726, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan research group that analyzes fundraising by candidates and political parties. That compares to a cost of $5,827,139 in 2000 and $2,587,616 in 1990.
Similarly, the average 2010 House campaign cost $1,163,231, though it cost just under $700,000 in 2000 and just over $320,000 in 1990.
Factors like incumbency play a huge role in the outcome of elections, but so does money: Since the 2000 election, candidates who spent more money in open seat House races won 86 percent of the time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
If a candidate doesn't put up the money himself, it's up to the political party backing him to do so. That gives the party organizations big incentive to recruit wealthy candidates.
"Self funders are attractive because it's one less candidate that a committee may have to make a huge investment in," said Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist at SKDKnickerbocker who has worked for the campaign arms of Congress.
Heye points out that money goes farther when it comes from the candidate directly, rather than through fundraisers.
"It's free money," he said, explaining that a candidate could write a $1 million check -- or spend $400,000, on things like fundraising events and direct mail, to raise $1 million.
But it turns out that candidates who finance their campaigns with their own personal wealth don't have the best record: During the 2010 election cycle, only 11 of 58 federal candidates who contributed at least $500,000 to their own campaigns prevailed on Election Day, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.
Still, a wealthy candidate brings more to the table than his own checkbook -- he also brings his friends' checkbooks.
"Wealthy candidates who try to buy office with their own money tend to lose, but in order to set up a campaign, you have to know a lot of wealthy people and wealthy special interests -- and that's something that most of us are not privy to," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen.
Online fundraising has opened the door for candidates with fewer personal connections or resources, but the method hasn't completely proven itself yet. Even President Obama, whose 2008 campaign set the bar for online fundraising, raised nearly 50 percent of his money from donors giving $1,000 or more.
Making money in Congress
Once a candidate actually makes it into Congress, he's presented with new opportunities to increase his wealth -- some that are unmatched in the corporate world.
There are some ethics restrictions in place that limit the income congressional members can take in; for instance, they're not allowed to take in outside income (from sources like speaking fees) that amounts to more than 15 percent of their salary (the base pay for a member of Congress is $174,000).
And like everyone else, members of Congress are subject to current insider trading laws. However, current insider trading laws do not apply to nonpublic information about current or upcoming congressional activity -- that's because members of Congress aren't technically obligated to keep that information confidential.
Congressmen can get away with "the type of insider trading that would send Martha Stewart to prison," Holman said. "They go into hearings and confidential meetings with business interests, understanding new legislation is going to come out next week," and are free to trade on that information.
So, for instance, if a lawmaker learns an upcoming bill will grant a company a large government contract, which could boost that company's stock, he or she is free to buy that stock ahead of the bill's public introduction.
A report released last month by four universities found that on average, stock portfolios held by House members from 1985 to 2001 beat the market average by approximately 6 percent annually. In 2004, the same group of professors found that the average stock portfolios held by members of the Senate beat the market average by about 10 percent.
Officially, House ethics rules say it would "impractical or unreasonable" to ask members of Congress to divest from industries over which they have jurisdiction, in part because a congressman may have been elected to represent a "common interest" he shares with his constituents. Thus, the rules say, if asked to divest in that industry, the member of Congress may be "ineffective in representing the real interests of the constituents."
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House ethics rules dictate that a lawmaker should "never use any information coming to him confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means for making a private profit." House rules, however, are only enforced on an internal basis, and breaches of the rules are often lightly punished, if at all.
Democratic Reps. Louise Slaughter of New York and Tim Walz of Minnesota have introduced legislation to stop insider trading in Congress. But the bill, which has been introduced before, has never had more than 14 congressional sponsors.
"To make decisions on the House floor or in committee hearings, members of Congress sometimes need access to non-public information," Slaughter said in a statement, "but they should not be able to profit off that information."
It's not just the lawmakers themselves who exist in this ethical grey space -- sometimes a congressman's spouse or family member is in a position to profit from congressional actions, raising questions about how far to extend conflict of interest rules.
"We find that one really effective way for a corporation to do influence peddling without actually bribing a member of Congress is hire the spouse," Holman said. "They'll hire these spouses at exorbitant salaries, and that money really goes directly into the pocket of the member."
Democratic Rep. Barney Frank recently acknowledged that in the 1990s he helped his then-partner get a lucrative job with Fannie Mae, though he said he did nothing wrong. New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgensen, who reported the detail in a new book, said in an interview that Fannie Mae "rolled out the red carpet" for Frank's partner to try to win him over, since he was a member of the Financial Services Committee.
Before Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh retired last year, he was the subject of scrutiny because his wife earned more than $1 million a year from sitting on various corporate boards in sectors like pharmaceuticals and insurance. Bayh said his wife's business interests didn't influence his votes on policy that impacted those sectors.
Once a member leaves office, even more opportunities for financial gain present themselves. According to Public Citizen, between 1998 and 2006, 43 percent of all members of Congress took lobbying jobs after leaving Congress, landing positions with an average annual salary of $2 million.
While there's room for debate as to whether Congress should adopt more rules to avoid conflicts of interest, it's clear that the more transparency there is, the better. When it comes to the disclosure of lawmakers' personal assets, however, there is certainly room for improvement -- starting with putting the information online, said Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Digital scanners and the Internet have been a around for a while now," he said wryly. "But there hasn't been any action. We would hope members of Congress would see the wisdom in making this information accessible to the public."
This article was updated to correct the percentage of donations President Obama received from donors giving $1,000 or more.
Congressional Arts Caucus
The Congressional Arts Caucus is a bipartisan organization for Members of Congress who support the arts through federal initiatives. Members participate in press conferences in support of the arts, testify before key committees in support of these cultural agencies, speak on the House floor about the positive educational and economic impact of the arts, and participate in the events of Arts Advocacy Day, an annual March event. Most important, the Arts Caucus also wages an annual fight to preserve funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Congressional Bicameral High-Speed and Intercity Rail Caucus
Co-Chair and Founding Member
The Congressional Bicameral High-Speed and Intercity Rail Caucus works to increase passenger rail funding, and expand high-speed and intercity passenger rail across the United States.
Congressional Bipartisan Upstate New York Caucus
The Congressional Bipartisan Upstate New York Caucus was created by Louise in January 2009 and has been joined by all Members representing Upstate New York districts in the House of Representatives. The purpose of the Caucus is to collectively address the unique issues facing Upstate New York, namely economic issues.
Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus
Co-chair and Founding Member
The Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus works to promote reproductive health and protect a woman's right to choose. The Caucus arranges briefings, supports and coordinates events, educates Members of Congress about reproductive health rights, and advocates for legislative initiatives that support a women's right to choose.
Great Lakes Task Force
The Great Lakes Task Force seeks to enhance the economic and environmental health of the Great Lakes. The Task Force works to advocate for policies and programs that would enhance the Great Lakes and the surrounding regions.
Additional Caucus Memberships
Air Force Caucus
This caucus sponsors briefings, base visits, and meetings with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and other personnel throughout the year. This organization not only educates the Members about the importance of Air Force and general military issues, but also focuses its energies and educational tools on the Members' staff through briefings and on-site Air Force base visits.
The At-Large Whip is responsible for serving as a liaison between rank-and-file Members and senior leadership, for counting votes on selected issues, and for helping to impress on colleagues in the House the merits of Democratic legislation.
Bicameral Congressional Caucus on Parkinson’s Disease
The Congressional Caucus on Parkinson’s Disease was created to increase awareness on Capitol Hill about Parkinson’s disease issues and to keep Members of Congress and their staff informed of the latest developments in Parkinson’s-related legislation and research.
Coalition for Autism Research and Education (CARE)
The Coalition for Autism Research and Education (CARE) was formed to increase general awareness of autism and autism spectrum disorders among Members of Congress and policy analysts in federal government. In addition, CARE works to bring together public, private, and government entities to pursue legislative initiatives that will help facilitate advanced treatments—and ultimately a cure—for autism spectrum disorders.
Congressional Advisory Committee on Lyme Disease
The Committee educates both Members of Congress and the public about Lyme disease. It seeks to provide information about how the disease is contracted and what medical options are available to treat it.
Congressional Automotive Caucus
The Congressional Automotive Caucus works to promote the American Automobile industry and American Auto workers. Most notably, the CAC has worked to ensure that foreign manufacturers must comply with the same regulations that American manufacturers adhere to.
Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus
The Biomedical Research Caucus invites biomedical professionals to the Hill in an effort to be educate Members of Congress about the future and possibilities of biomedicines.
Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
The Congressional Brain Injury Task Force serves as a source of information for Congress and the public on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The Task Force works on promoting full funding for the TBI Act and brain injury research, as well as providing guidance to federal agencies on policies and proposed rulemakings.
Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues
Also known as the Women's Caucus, this bipartisan Congressional Member Organization promotes and raises awareness of legislation and public policy issues of particular concern to women.
Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues
The purpose of this Caucus is to encourage and improve the United States’ relationship with Greece. Members of the Caucus provide information to those interested about Hellenic issues, as well as promote legislation regarding these issues.
Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans
This Caucus focuses on American-Indian relations and how to better foster relations between our two nations. It also works to help Indian Americans and educate Members of Congress about issues important to the Indian American community.
Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse
The Caucus aims to raise awareness of prescription drug abuse, while working to develop innovative and effective policy solutions incorporating treatment, prevention, law enforcement, and research.
Congressional Coalition on Adoption
The Coalition on Adoption brings together Members of Congress who support adoption. The Coalition works to remove barriers to adoption and to support the adoption by loving families of children who are awaiting adoption in foster care.
Congressional Childhood Cancer Caucus
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Congressional Diabetes Caucus
The Congressional Diabetes Caucus strives to educate members of Congress and their staff about diabetes. The Caucus works to support legislative activities that would improve diabetes education, research, and treatment.
Congressional Entertainment Industries Caucus
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Congressional Fire Services Caucus
The Fire Services Caucus work for the Fire Services and other first responders. The Caucus seeks to educate Members of Congress about what first responders need in order to successfully do their jobs.
Congressional Heart and Stroke Coalition
The Coalition, which is made up of more than 200 members of Congress, works to raise awareness of the seriousness of cardiovascular diseases and acts as a resource center on heart and stroke issues, including biomedical research, quality and availability of care and health promotion/disease prevention. The Coalition also works to advance public policy aimed at fighting cardiovascular diseases.
Congressional Human Rights Caucus
The Human Rights Caucus focuses on publicizing human rights abuses in the world today. It holds briefings to educate Members about current human rights concerns. The Human Rights Caucus also organizes events to commemorate those who have fought for human rights in the past.
Congressional Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Caucus
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Congressional Labor and Working Families Caucus
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Congressional Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Equality Caucus
The LGBT Equality Caucus was created to promote lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality. The Caucus works toward removing discriminatory laws, eliminating hate crimes, and improving the health and wellbeing for all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
Congressional Lupus Caucus
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Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus
This bipartisan coalition is made up of over 100 members of Congress devoted to helping find missing children and raising public awareness about child abduction. The Caucus has also played a major role in helping protect children from sexual predators on the Internet.
Congressional Native American Caucus
This Caucus seeks to improve nation-to-nation relationships between the federal government and sovereign tribal nations. The Caucus strives to protect tribal sovereignty, meet federal trust obligations, and improve the lives of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
Congressional Organic Caucus
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Congressional Pre-K Caucus
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Congressional Prevention Coalition
The Congressional Prevention Coalition is working to make disease prevention a priority in health care policy. It focuses on pre-screening and immunization in an effort to stop a disease before it develops.
Congressional Task Force on International HIV/AIDS
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Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus
The CTTC works to educate Members of Congress about the important role the tourism industry plays in the American economy. It is a bi-partisan group that has a footprint in all 435 House of Representatives' offices.
Congressional TRIO Caucus
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Congressional Ukrainian Caucus
The Congressional Ukrainian Caucus was created to foster and build relations between the United States and Ukraine. The Caucus has been active in promoting the non-violent transition in Ukraine from Communism to Democracy and a market economy.
Congressional Voting Rights Caucus
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Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus
The Caucus was formed to support the interest of the nation’s accredited zoos and aquariums. In addition, the Caucus works to promote awareness and appreciation of the work and impact that these zoos have on education and conservation.
The caucus, which was launched in 2011, works to educate policymakers and the public about the economic, educational, and social benefits of the booming entertainment software industry. The Rochester area is home to several colleges and universities with very well established programs and courses related to video game design and software.
House Cancer Awareness Working Group
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House Congressional Academic Medicine Caucus
This Caucus is dedicated to maintaining and strengthening the nation’s reputation as having the world’s most advanced medical care. The Caucus strives to educate their colleagues on health care, research and training missions of teaching hospitals and medical schools.
House Mentoring Caucus
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Law Enforcement Caucus
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Medical Technology Caucus
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The neuroscience caucus works to advocate for policies and legislation to further brain and neural medical research. By involving patients, physicians and research institutions, the caucus strives to build awareness and coordinate cooperation between all invested stakeholders.
Northeast Agricultural Caucus
The Northeast Agricultural Caucus workers to help farmers and food growers in the Northeast.
Northern Border Caucus
The Northern Border Caucus works to promote the interests of states along the Canadian border. The bipartisan group serves as a voice for constituents who reside near the northern US border to Canada.
The Pulic Works and Infrastructure Caucus
Thebipartisan congressional Public Works and Infrastructure Caucus will serve as a forum to discuss the importance of public works in providing our nation’s communities with the essential services necessary for supporting a high quality of life. The caucus will bring attention to the need for greater investment in our nation’s critical infrastructure that is so vital to our economic prosperity.
Research and Development Caucus
The Research & Development Caucus was established to highlight the national importance of research and the interdependency of research efforts across disciplines and to increase the awareness of Members of Congress and their staff on issues related to research.
Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition
The Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition advocates for policies aimed at preventing the continuation of global warming and protecting the environment from pollution. To achieve these goals they promote policies that encourage the development of renewable and clean energy innovation along with creating American green-collar jobs.
USO Congressional Caucus
The USO Congressional Caucus was formed to enhance the outreach efforts of the American people to US troops and their families by providing a link between service men and women and their representatives. The Caucus works to support and improve the quality of life for US troops and their families around the world.