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Must You Be a Millionaire to Serve in the People's House?

For those not as fortunate as U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin — Congress's wealthiest member — a low net worth poses a challenge.

Louie Gohmert (l), Republican of Tyler, Rubén Hinojosa (c), Democrat of Edinburg and Silvestre Reyes (r), Democrat of El Paso

WASHINGTON — Texas multimillionaire Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, recently topped a list of Congress’s wealthiest members, and five other Texans joined him in the top 50.

But less well known are the Texas members on the other end of Congress’s net-worth spectrum, including Reps. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Edinburg; Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler; and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso.

A low net worth can pose a challenge to lawmakers trying to maintain one home in their district and another in Washington, current and former members say. But it also proves that you do not have to be a millionaire to serve in the people’s house — and that, some say, is an important point to make.

A diverse Congress “on all levels” makes for better legislation and more tuned-in lawmakers, Hinojosa said through a spokesman. Hinojosa, a former president of a food-processing company, is the least-wealthy Texas member — and is in Congress’s bottom 10, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, which estimated his net worth at negative $881,000.

His annual federal financial disclosure, which establishes a range of values for many of the members’ personal assets and liabilities, puts his average net worth at about negative $2.67 million. He declared personal bankruptcy last year, attributing it to his liability for a bank loan to the troubled food-processing company.

“If you just have wealthy people who can afford to run for office, then you’re not going to have that representation that the Constitution was supposed to provide,” said Reyes, whose average net worth is about $8,000, according to his federal financial disclosure. Reyes, a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief, reported no debt.

Gohmert, a former judge who did not respond to a request for comment, disclosed an average $150,000 in liabilities, for a personal loan and student loans for three children.

Advocates for fiscal transparency say such data is important for the public to know, and not just because it helps deter conflicts of interest. Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said it also “helps people understand whether they would be good stewards of the public purse, if they are good stewards of their own finances and their family’s finances.”

Some dispute that reasoning, saying lawmakers could simply have inherited money or spent a less lucrative career in public service. In any case, wealthy members should be in the mix, said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville and a physician by trade. “Success breeds success,” Burgess said.

Practical difficulties can ensue for less wealthy members who spend much of the year in Washington. Henry Bonilla, a former Texas congressman, said some members did not want the public to know they slept in their offices and showered in the House gym. But others publicize such actions as a symbol of frugality that appealed to constituents back home. The practice, however, drew concerns from an ethics group this year.

Hardship, of course, may be a matter of voters’ perspective. But “on a more basic level, it helps them understand or appreciate whether the members can relate to the average American experience,” Krumholz said.

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