OUR HOUSE OF LORDS: Wealth concentration increases as Congress Cashes In


To listen to Senator Bob Menendez’s tearful post hung jury remarks you would have thought he was exonerated. And by the stampede of elected officials to his side, you would think they thought so as well. Just to be clear, a hung jury is not a “not-guilty” verdict. Yet, he  actually called it a “resurrection day.”

Its easy to understand, how in true New Jersey Soprano state style, a brush with the law these days for our electeds is only really a problem if they shackle you and lock you up in a cell without bail. There was no shame factor at work here. The takeaway is the Senator is entitled to large gifts because it is just the natural order of things. He’s a ruler, from the club of 100,  and he gets stuff. ‘You have a problem with that?’ Four star accommodations in Paris, why of course! 

He’s a great man and the other great men around him, like Senator Cory Booker and Senator Lindsay Graham, who were two of his character witnesses at trial, will tell him so. No doubt, they are entitled to stuff too.  Why, we are just really lucky they bother to do the “people’s business” at all with all the fundraising they have to do to stay in office. 

What the tick tock details of the Melgen-Menendez bromance reveals is that our members of Congress, in the constant pursuit of money from the rich and powerful, are increasingly disconnected from the collapse of the middle class because they are captive to the jet set bubble in order to raise campaign cash and defense fund money. 

Atlantic Magazine reported back in 2013 that Senator Menendez ranked 97th in the Senate in terms of his personal wealth, but with his salary approaching $200,000 he is worlds away from the $41,107 median household income from his original home town of Union City, where close to one in four of his constituents  live in poverty. In fact, over the Senator’s entire career, the ranks of New Jersey’s poor have continued to grow as he advanced in his career. 

And even after our electeds have done us the huge favor of “serving” they have every right to continue cashing in. None of this is criminal. It is just gravity. Back in May, President Obama collected $400,000 for one speech for a Wall Street crowd. Now, in his post presidency his inner capitalist is free to emerge. We will come to understand how he got to live in the  White House for eight years while so many African-Americans lost their homes to the same interests that funded the Obama campaign and now help him with his retirement.  

The insatiable bi-partisan appetite to attend to the needs of the rich and powerful has led to the wholesale neglect of the American people. Just look at how the Great Recession played out. Wall Street got bailed out, Americans lost $20 trillion in household wealth, and the big banks got bigger and wealth concentration only accelerated. 

Meanwhile, the Pew Center reported recently that crippling student debt is taking a toll as “more Millennial households are in poverty than households headed by any other generation. In 2016, an estimated 5.3 million of the nearly 17 million U.S. households living in poverty were headed by a Millennial, compared with 4.2 million headed by a Gen Xer and 5.0 million headed by a Baby Boomer,” Pew found. “The relatively high number of Millennial households in poverty partly reflects the fact that the poverty rate among households headed by a young adult has been rising over the past half century while dramatically declining among households headed by those 65 and older.”

Even as Americans were reeling from the brunt of the Great Recession set off by Wall Streets massive mortgage scam, Roll Call reported that Congress’s collective net worth cleared $2 billion in 2010, a 25 percent spike from 2008. As a Roll Call noted, that was a really low ball estimate. “These wealth totals vastly underestimate the actual net worth of Members of Congress because they are based on an accounting system that does not include homes and other non-income-generating property, which is likely to tally hundreds of millions of uncounted dollars,” Roll Call reported. “In addition, Roll Call’s tally is based on the minimum values of assets reported by Members on their annual financial disclosure forms; the true values of those assets may be much higher. “

The Roll Call analysis continued. “While wealth overall is scattered fairly evenly between the two parties, there is an interesting divide in the two chambers. Democrats hold about 80 percent of the wealth in the Senate; Republicans control about 78 percent of the wealth in the House.”

Is it just coincidental that as the one percent gobbled up more and more of the national wealth that Congress experienced the same windfall? In 2016 the top one percent controlled 38.6 percent of the nation’s household wealth, up from 36.3 percent just three years earlier. In 1983, the top one percent controlled 33.8 percent of that wealth. Now, the bottom 90 percent of the nation controls just 22.8 percent. 

In a research paper “Who Rules America” G. William Domhoff, a professor at the University of California at Santa Clara, reported that surveys indicate Americans have no idea about just how  out of whack our wealth distribution had become. “Even more striking, they did not come close on the amount of wealth held by the bottom 40% of the population. It’s a number I haven’t even mentioned so far, and it’s shocking: the lowest two quintiles hold just 0.3% of the wealth in the United States,” he wrote.  “Most people in the survey guessed the figure to be between 8% and 10%, and two dozen academic economists got it wrong too, by guessing about 2% — seven times too high. Those surveyed did have it about right for what the 20% in the middle have; it’s at the top and the bottom that they don’t have any idea of what’s going on.”

Back in 1776 Americans chaffed under the yoke of a monarch an ocean away who deprived them of their liberty and dominion over their destiny. A 2012 research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research documented that during that period of the nascent nation “among all American households, slaves included, the richest one percent had just 7.1 percent of the total national income. “Incomes were much more equally distributed in colonial America than in America today, or in other countries in the late 18th century,” according to the report.

241 years later what do we have? A Congress, that resembles the House of Lords, who year in, year out serve the interest of their own class, insuring that the great national wealth concentration continues. It’s all they know.   

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