WASHINGTON - When Representative Ed Pastor was first elected to Congress two decades ago, the Arizona Democrat was comfortably ensconced in the middle class. Pastor held $100,000 or so in savings in the mid-1990s and had a retirement pension, but like many Americans, he also owed the banks nearly as much in loans.
Today, Pastor, a miner’s son and a former high school teacher, is a member of a not-so-exclusive club: Capitol Hill millionaires. That group has grown in recent years to include nearly half of all members of Congress - 250 in all - and the wealth gap between lawmakers and their constituents appears to be growing quickly, even as Congress debates unemployment benefits, possible cuts in food stamps, and a “millionaire’s tax.’’
Pastor, who said the key to his financial good fortune was simply watching what he spends and paying off debts, does not consider himself rich. Indeed, within the gilded halls of Congress, where the median net worth is $913,000 and climbing, he is not. He is a rank-and-file millionaire. But compared with the country at large, where the median net worth is $100,000 and has dropped significantly since 2004, he and most of his fellow lawmakers are true aristocrats.
Largely insulated from the economic downturn since 2008, members of Congress - many of them among the “1 percenters’’ decried by Occupy Wall Street protesters - have gotten much richer even as most of the country has become much poorer in the past six years, according to an analysis by The New York Times based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Congress has never been a place for paupers. From plantation owners in the pre-Civil War era to industrialists in the early 1900s to ex-Wall Street financiers and Internet executives today, it has long been populated with the rich.
But rarely has the divide appeared so wide, or the public contrast so stark, between lawmakers and those they represent.
The wealth gap may go largely unnoticed in good times.
“But with the American public feeling all this economic pain, people just resent it more,’’ said Alan J. Ziobrowski, a professor at Georgia State who studied lawmakers’ stock investments.
There is wide debate about just why the wealth gap appears to be growing. For starters, the prohibitive costs of political campaigning may discourage the less affluent from even considering a run for Congress. Beyond that, loose ethics controls, members’ shrewd stock picks, profitable land deals, favorable tax laws, inheritances, and even marriages to wealthy spouses are all cited as possible explanations for the rising fortunes on Capitol Hill.
What is clear is that members of Congress are getting richer compared not only to the average American worker but even to other very rich Americans.
While the median net worth of members of Congress jumped 15 percent between 2004 and 2010, the net worth of the richest 10 percent of Americans remained essentially flat. For all Americans, median net worth dropped 8 percent during that period, based on inflation-adjusted data from Moody’s Analytics.
With millionaire status now the norm, the rarefied air in the Capitol these days is $100 million.
That lofty level appears to have been surpassed by at least 10 members, led by Representative Darrell Issa of California, who is worth somewhere between $195 million and $700 million. (Because federal law requires lawmakers to disclose their assets only in broad dollar ranges, more precise estimates are impossible.)
Their wealth has created occasional political problems for Congress’s richest.
Issa, for instance, has faced outside scrutiny because of the overlap of his congressional work and outside interests. In one case, he obtained some $800,000 in federal earmarks for a road-widening project running along commercial property he owns.
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts set off a firestorm last year when it was disclosed he had docked his $7 million, 76-foot yacht not in his home state but in neighboring Rhode Island, which has no sales or use tax on pleasure boats. (Kerry, worth at least $181 million, voluntarily paid $400,000 in Massachusetts taxes after public criticism.)
In an effort to gauge how directly the country’s economic problems affected lawmakers, the Times contacted the offices of the 534 current members (one seat is vacant) for an informal survey. It asked if they had close friends or family members who lost their jobs or homes since the 2008 downturn.
Only 18 members responded.
Half the respondents said they had close friends or relatives who lost homes, while the other half said their personal contact was limited to constituents who came for help. Two-thirds said they had close friends or relatives who were laid off or shut down a business during the downturn. The rest knew no one in that category personally.