“You think we can live on what I make as a senator?” an incredulous Alan Alda asks in his new movie, The Seduction of Joe Tynan. To many citizens, the question may seem indulgent, since the $57,500 salary alone puts a senator in the top two percent of American wage earners. But in fact the question is moot. No longer the broadly representative chamber John Adams had in mind two centuries ago, the U.S. Senate that reconvenes in Washington this week is more than ever a rich man’s club.
In 1979, for the first time in history, high officials in all three branches of the federal government were required to reveal their finances. The disclosure statements are intentionally vague, asking respondents simply to estimate their total assets in one of 10 categories (the first is $1,000 to $5,000, the last $5 million and up) and to name their sources of outside income. Several factors keep the estimates unrealistically low. Some of the richest have blind trusts, which by their very nature are impossible to assess accurately. Others keep investments in spouses’ names.
Yet for all the deliberate ambiguity, the bottom line is clear: 25 senators have fortunes that exceed $1 million—and another 16 are in the million-dollar range.
The reason for the Senate’s new upscale profile is clear. Politics more and more is a rich man’s game. The cost of getting elected has risen dramatically—Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, for example, spent $7.4 million on his campaign last year. Politicians with money of their own are better credit risks to campaign angels than those without—and the candidate who spends the most usually wins. One result is a troubling distance between the governed and the governors: In Missouri, where the per capita income is $6,600, both senators are millionaires.
The Senate’s richest members range in age from 36 to 75; they are a bipartisan bunch (13 Republicans, 11 Democrats, 1 Independent); and the Senate’s only woman is one of them. On these pages is a look at the 25 certified millionaires—and at one senator with a decidedly different perspective.