The odds were long. At 34, Myers was the shift foreman at the “hot mill” of the Armco plant here. He had no political experience, little or no money, and he was a Republican in a district that tilted Democrat. But standing in the dining room, still in his work clothes, he said he felt voters deserved a better choice.
Three years later, he won.
Back when Myers entered Congress in 1975, it wasn’t nearly so unusual for a person with few assets besides a home to win and serve in Congress. Though representatives have long been more prosperous than other Americans, others of that time included a barber, a pipe fitter and a house painter. A handful had even organized into what was called the “Blue Collar Caucus.” But the financial gap between Americans and their representatives in Congress has widened considerably since then, according to an analysis of financial disclosures by The Washington Post.
Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House has risen 2 1 / 2 times, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, rising from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the median sliding from $20,600 to $20,500, according to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the University of Michigan.
All figures have been adjusted for inflation and exclude home equity, which is not included in congressional reporting. The year 1984 was chosen because it was the earliest for which consistent wealth data were available.
The growing disparity between the representatives and the represented means there is a greater distance between the economic experience of Americans and those of lawmakers. “My mother and I used to joke we were like the Beverly Hillbillies when we rolled into McLean, and we really were,” said Michele Myers, the congressman’s daughter, now 46. “My dad was driving this awful lime green Ford Maverick, and I bought my clothes at Kmart.”
Today, this area of Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh is represented in Congress by another Republican, Mike Kelly, a wealthy car dealer elected for the first time in 2010. Kelly, as it happens, grew up just a few houses down the street from the Myers family, in a larger brick home.
Kelly’s dad owned the local Chevrolet and Cadillac dealership in Butler, and Kelly, an affable former football recruit to Notre Dame, had worked there since he was a kid. Three years after graduating from college, he married Victoria, an heir to the Phillips oil fortune. He eventually bought and took control of the family car business, and today, the net worth of Kelly and his wife runs in the millions of dollars, according to financial disclosure forms.
Both men refer to their personal life experiences in explaining their political outlook.
Myers, the son of a bricklayer, had worked his way through college to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and looked at issues of work and security at least partly through the lens of his own experience. For example, he bucked other Republicans to vote to raise the minimum wage and favored expanding a program to aid workers affected by foreign imports. He said he understood the need for what was then called “the safety net.”
“It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,” said Myers, now 74 and retired in Florida, said. “I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.”
Kelly, on the other hand, focuses on the hard work he and his family have done to build the dealership. The government should be run more like a business and laws must be fair to people who strive and succeed. He opposes the estate tax, the inheritance tax levied on the wealthy, because, among other things, he feels he has been overtaxed already. He says unemployment checks make some less willing to go back to work. And asked about tax breaks for oil companies, he notes that when corporations profit, people with pensions and portfolios do, too.
Moreover, he favors the so-called Ryan budget plan, which seeks to eliminate tax loopholes and lowers the income tax on the highest earners from 35 percent to 25 percent.
In explaining his outlook, Kelly often refers to his father. One of nine kids who started the car business almost from scratch, his father was skeptical of the ideas for social programs and education that his son brought home from college in the late ’60s.
“He’d say ‘Oh, I love your ideas, I love your ideas,’ ” Kelly recalled. “But he’d say, ‘You know why its a great country, don’t you? We worked our asses off. That’s why it’s a great country.’ ”