WASHINGTON — When wages temporarily stopped for thousands of federal workers during the government shutdown in January, nearly 100 lawmakers signed over or donated their paycheck in solidarity.
But Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., elected just weeks earlier, couldn’t afford the gesture.
“If you’re a member of Congress who can say: ‘I can forgo an entire paycheck,’ more power to you,” she said in an interview. But “this incoming class had probably quite a few people who were not in a position to say I will forgo a paycheck after having not worked for” months because of the demands of the campaign.
More often than not, members of Congress come from a moneyed pedigree, whether they made a fortune in business before starting a political career, married a wealthy spouse or inherited family fortunes. Last year, 40 percent of the House and Senate were millionaires and the median net worth of lawmakers was more than $511,000, according to a calculation by the Roll Call newspaper.
However, a review of the financial holdings of freshman lawmakers — documents they were required to file when they ran for office — shows that on the whole, the class has more modest means than other elected officials recently.
More than 30 percent of the class has a net worth of under $100,000 and the median is $412,011, nearly $100,000 less than the entirety of the last Congress.
To be sure, these lawmakers are now pulling in salaries of $174,000, putting them in the top 3 percent of salaries in the United States as of 2017.
And there are several lawmakers who reported net worths well into the millions of dollars. One, Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., won a $266 million lottery jackpot in 2010 and has a minimum net worth of $35 million.
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But in some cases, the modest economic backgrounds of some members including student debt, home mortgages and small savings suggest they could bring a different perspective.
Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, who at 30 is one of the youngest freshman lawmakers, argues her middle-class district is best represented by someone of the same background.
She was renting her one-bedroom house from a family member, made $25,000 a year as a state representative and had a 10-year-old but fully paid off Chevrolet Malibu when she decided to run.
“It’s Iowa — that’s the reality of my state,” she said. “We have one of the lowest wage states of the entire country and you’ve got people working their tails off every day trying to make it.”
The financial disclosure form she filed in 2018 said her only source of income was the part-time Legislature job, and that she had thousands of dollars of student debt.
She unseated two-term Republican Rod Blum, whose net worth was estimated at over $20 million in 2015 by the Center For Responsive Politics.
Several freshman members said they learned during their campaigns why Congress is largely made up of wealthy people: Running for office takes up a lot of time that isn’t spent at work to earn a paycheck.
Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, who says he and his wife lived off of $17,000 last year, said his middle-class upbringing was something that connected him with his constituents.
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“People are in a phase right now in politics where they’re looking for genuine representation, and a lot of people feel like they’ve been cut out of the process,” he said.
The freshmen are coming to Washington as congressional pay comes under greater scrutiny.
For the first time in a decade, key Republican and Democratic House members were recently seriously considering voting to give themselves a raise, citing worry that the salary — while high by national standards — was not enough to allow lawmakers to stay in public service.
But the House effort to approve a pay hike faded when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the GOP-controlled Senate would not do the same, making the effort politically toxic.