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The Freshman Class: Sing a Song For the New Breed

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The freshman Democrats really are different from other members of Congress and not only in perspective or willingness to fight. Unlike most people in Congress, many of them are actually from economically shaky backgrounds. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s move from bartender to Congressional powerhouse is only the most striking example.

When wages temporarily stopped for thousands of federal workers during the government shutdown in January, nearly 100 lawmakers signed over or donated their paycheck to show solidarity.

But Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), elected just weeks earlier, literally 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 in her Capitol Hill office. 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% 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 Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

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 in recent history.

More than 30% 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.

Some of the examples are actually pretty stark:

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, bringing home 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.

“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,” Golden said. “So I think a natural reaction is that people want someone of their own to represent them in Congress.”

Golden, a retired Marine who doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t live paycheck to paycheck, says wealthy lawmakers may not realize the full effect of their policy decisions.

He recounted driving hours to a Veterans Affairs facility in Maine for his healthcare after he left the military, and receiving an immediate cash reimbursement for his gas to get back home. One day — in an effort to streamline the system — reimbursements were switched to electronic payments, made a couple of weeks later. The small change nearly left him stranded.

“Literally there were times when I would get there knowing I was going to need that money to put gas in my tank to get home,” he said.

That experience, he said, enables him to bring a different perspective to congressional debates. “I am someone who could look at that [kind of policy,] and say: ‘Wait a minute. Someone might actually need that reimbursement in the moment.’ That’s the kind of thing that is … almost unfathomable to some members.”

Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), 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 – Chevy Malibu when she decided to run for office.

“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 open question is whether having relatively poor backgrounds makes a long-term difference in voting, advocacy, and ways of being a member of Congress. American history is full of politicians who started out poor and were easily corrupted. One of Robert Caro’s main points in his first volume of the LBJ biography is that Johnson’s father was one of the few Texas Populists who refused to be corrupted and thus, the family grew up poor. LBJ learned from his father and was determined to never be poor. So we will see. But electing a bunch of rich people certainly has a negative impact on fighting for economic justice, as those rich people are far more likely to be interested in other issues but not want to vote for serious economic redistribution because they have a vested interest in the game as currently played.

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