Net Worthlessness: Congressional Wealth and the Unstable Right

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Net Worthlessness: Congressional Wealth and the Unstable Right

A recent report by Peter Whoriskey in the Washington Post on the rising wealth of members of Congress contained a number of surprises, and some food for thought.

That Congressmen and -women are getting richer is not one of the surprises, to be sure.  Anyone paying attention knows that our legislators are the product of a system built around money.  So it comes as no shock that they might accumulate some of it.  For instance, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi reports personal wealth in excess of $101 million; Sen. John Kerry is worth double that and then some.  Nor is it much of a surprise that over time Congresspeople might get to keep more of the money that comes their way.  Between 1984 and 2009 the average net worth of members of the House of Representatives (excluding home equity) has more than doubled – at the same time that average household net worth of the public at large has receded slightly.

Bought Cheap

More surprising is that the average wealth of a member of Congress is still kind of paltry, less than three-quarters of a million dollars.  One would think the spoils would be greater than that. Many of us would be happy to have a net worth of three-quarters of a million dollars, but still, considering the vast sums of cash sloshing around in American politics, that average seems low.

In part it can be explained by the fact that there are a lot of members with negative net worths, likely the result of pledging assets to secure campaign debt.  Outliers can drag an average down.

Partisan Intensity

Still, it seems as if all that money is buying something – and that is the second big surprise.  Over the same period, between 1984 and 2009, the partisanship of Congress has increased in a curve whose profile to an uncanny degree mimics that of the net worth curve.  This partisanship is measured by an algorithm called NOMINATE (for “Nominal Three-Step Estimation,” if you must know), maintained by an academic named Keith Poole.  It seems to be the most respected metric of these things.

If you buy into the premise that throughout the length of American history there has been essentially one polarity in American politics – call it Left and Right – NOMINATE can tell you where any member of Congress has been on that polarity, based on almost every vote he/she has taken.  And what NOMINATE tells us is that seldom has Congress been more composed of consistently Left and Right members.  In other words, if they vote Left on one issue, they will, to a greater degree than is typical in American history, vote Left on other issues as well; and the converse holds true if they vote Right.  At the moment, these forces are roughly balanced, which partly accounts for all the gridlock you may have noticed.

Corporate Cash

Up until the 2010 Citizens United decision, individuals were the biggest contributors to Congressional campaigns, PACs a distant second, and corporations were excluded from directly donating, at least in the periods just before elections.  Held back by the floodgates of federal election law, until Citizens United opened them up, corporate money had to choose indirect routes to reach Congress at the most inconvenient times.  And perhaps it was that indirection that left Congress in a position where it still had an identifiable and viable Left, being as corporate money is usually associated with the Right, and individuals contribute across the spectrum.

Hold that thought about corporate money, though.

In the wake of Citizens United, we could expect that if corporate money is freer to influence elections, the balance in Congress would shift rightward – at least if the single-polarity analysis of NOMINATE is correct.  But there are reasons the single-polarity assumption might not hold true forever, because it’s doubtful that Right can continue to mean what Right means today.

Doomed Dixiecrats

A little history.  Consider the Dixiecrats during the New Deal.  They tended to vote for the Rooseveltian programs to regulate and stimulate the economy, which in the politics of that era was the Left position.  But they nearly completely checkmated any progress toward racial justice; maintenance of the privileged status of whites was the Right position.  Cumulatively, this combination of stances would have put Dixiecrats in the middle on that NOMINATE graph, as they voted Left on some issues and Right on others.

You could argue that the inconsistency of the Dixiecrats made them centrists, or you could say that there was in fact more than one polarity out there.  I leave that dispute to the experts.  But however you characterize it, that inconsistency left the Democrats standing for essentially contradictory things.  The party of that era was an inherently unstable compound.  And finally it disintegrated over the the apostasy of President Johnson, a Dixiecrat who broke with the South and made civil rights legislation finally happen.  This led to the Republicanization of the South.

Two generations later, however, the unstable coalition is on the Right.  It consists of two groups who, like the constituents of the New Deal Democrats, have little inherent reason to be in the same party.  Their interests, objectively viewed, are not aligned, though party voting discipline currently obscures this.

What Are These People Doing in the Same Picture?

For instance, corporate Republicans are injured by the social conservatives’ hostility to immigration.  It interferes with the education and retention of bright foreigners in the technical and financial sectors, and with access to cheap labor in agricultural and service sectors.  A recent dust-up over anti-immigrant laws in Alabama is a harbinger: corporate America took on the state and forced the socially conservative governor to blink.

Similarly, hostility toward government solvency and functioning looks like a corporate issue, but really is a social conservative issue, except where it comes to regulation.  Business needs a government able to maintain an educational and transportation infrastructure, and willing to bankroll scientific innovation.

Meanwhile social conservatives throng “the 99%.”  They may have bought into the notion that the gross disparities in distribution of wealth in our society is the correct working of a fair system.  But the very American families social conservatives so value are under financial siege because of that distribution.  Hostility to government regulation, to economic planning, and to efforts to combat climate change are not good for social conservatives.  It’s hard to foster family values in your home when your home is under water, figuratively or for that matter literally (as will happen to many coastal conservatives if climate change continues).

Money Will Have Friends Everywhere

It is a reasonable guess that corporate interests, being clearer sighted, will do most of the shifting if the Republican coalition comes undone.  It’s not as if much shifting would even be required.  Can anyone doubt that corporate money is in some fashion behind the wealth of the members of Congress named above – both of whom are Democrats?  Or that it has something to do with the prosperity of both parties’ lawmakers?  Of course, corporate interests would have to reckon with Democrats being the party of regulation and taxes.  But they may well decide to go with keeping their enemies close for a while.

If they do, we can expect to see those Congressional net worths continue to climb, even as current extreme party unity lessens.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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