WASHINGTON –– Close to half the incoming members of Congress are millionaires and many will face votes that could affect their financial holdings.
For example, 11 of the 63 first-termers in the House and Senate have financial interests of at least $15,000 in banking or credit card companies, including bank directorships, according to an Associated Press review of financial disclosure forms filed during the campaign.
Among the issues the next Congress is expected to tackle is legislation that would make it harder for consumers to declare bankruptcy, a bill pushed by the banking industry.
Several incoming freshmen also have significant financial holdings in the pharmaceutical and oil industries, both of which could well be the subject of congressional action next year.
For example, Congress will consider legislation to help senior citizens buy prescription drugs. Democrats want to put the program under Medicare; Republicans and the pharmaceutical industry want a smaller program run by private insurers.
And the oil industry favors opening the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, a subject of heated dispute in the past Congress. President Bush and many Republicans favor the exploration, while many Democrats and environmental interests oppose it.
Government watchdog groups often cite the economic inequity between many members of Congress and the people they represent. They say wealth makes lawmakers more apt to think about their financial interests than what's best for their constituents.
"Only richer people tend to win office," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, which is affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader. "It's those very same people who tend to hold lots of stock. They have conflicts of interest in respect to their voting when they come to office."
Rep.-elect Trent Franks, R-Ariz., owner of Liberty Petroleum Corp., said his business interests won't cloud his votes.
"There's every desire on my part to do what's best for the country and for the people I represent, regardless of any implication it has upon my business," he said.
Rep.-elect Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., who reported holdings of $1 million to $5 million, much of it from stocks, said the only way he would benefit is if the economy improves, which helps everyone.
"I don't believe you can, as a member of Congress, use your influence to benefit yourself," Bradley said. "What you try to do is set the stage for the economy to benefit. That's why you enter into public service, to improve, as you perceive it, the lot of your constituents."
Almost 43 percent of the incoming freshmen — 27 lawmakers — are millionaires, compared with 1 percent of the American public. Fourteen will take a pay cut to serve in Congress, where rank-and-file senators and representatives will receive $154,700 next year. In the previous freshman class two years ago, one-third were millionaires.
Rep.-elect Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., is taking the biggest financial hit. He reported $6.9 million in salary last year, primarily from investment banking, according to his financial disclosure form. Before joining the private sector, Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Clinton.
An Emanuel spokeswoman said he will set up a blind trust.
Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group, said many lawmakers' wealth puts them out of touch with their constituents.
"When you have a number of people out of work and health care being a problem for the middle class, not just the poor, and with the economy stalled, to have this bumper crop of millionaires stands out," Lewis said. "That's who gets into politics now."
Incoming Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., said talents that make people successful in business also can make them a good lawmaker.
"They bring a lot to the table, especially in our difficult times," said Ruppersberger, whose holdings are valued at $700,000 to $1.58 million. "You want people who have good judgment and have the courage to stand up for what they believe in. If people have done well, that means they're successful. Maybe that's part of leadership."
In addition to personal wealth, the freshman class brings significant government experience. Nearly 80 percent — 50 of 63 — have been public servants, including 27 former state legislators and four former federal officials.
"Especially post-Sept. 11, people realize the government has a critical role to play in providing for the safety of all Americans," said Bradley, who served as a New Hampshire state legislator. "I don't sense an anti-government bias. What I sense is Americans want their government to work for them to solve problems."
On the Net:
Center for Public Integrity: http://www.publicintegrity.org
Congressional Accountability Project: http://www.congressproject.org
© 2002 The Associated Press