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Who's Weighing Tax On Rich? Congress' Millionaires
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Who's Weighing Tax On Rich? Congress' Millionaires

Politics

Who's Weighing Tax On Rich? Congress' Millionaires
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LYNN NEARY, host: President Obama's jobs and deficit reduction plan includes a new tax proposal. He calls it the Buffett Rule. It would impose a new tax on people who make more than a million dollars a year, who currently pay a much lower rate than an average middle class American. The president, in fact, proposed this rule to a group of people with a lot of millionaires in it - Congress.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The number of Americans who are millionaires is pretty low, about one-percent of the population. Members of Congress who are millionaires: nearly 50 percent, that's according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan watchdog group that tracks money in politics.

Michael Beckel is its spokesman. He says of the 435 members of the House...

MICHAEL BECKEL: Two-hundred forty-four current members of Congress are millionaires. That's about 46 percent and that includes 138 Republicans and 106 Democrats.

SEABROOK: Beckel is talking about net worth, the total amount of money and assets lawmakers have, according to their own financial disclosure forms. In fact, there are probably many more millionaires in Congress since lawmakers don't have to include the value of their family home and other details.

Beckel says this wealth already makes life pretty different for lawmakers than for the constituents they represent. A member of Congress is more likely to be hit by the tax hike they're considering.

Now, the Buffett Rule is not aimed at millionaires, per se, but at people who earn an income of at least a million dollars a year. Some in Congress come under this category, too. But people much more likely to get hit by the Buffett rule: The donors.

BECKEL: We don't know how many political donors are millionaires, but we do know that it takes a certain amount of disposable income to make political contributions.

SEABROOK: Campaigns are expensive. In 2010, says Beckel, the average winner of a House race spent one-and-a-half million dollars. The average Senate winner spent close to $10 million. The hot races are even more expensive. And about half of that money, on average, comes from an elite group of very wealthy donors: people who get a lot of attention from politicians, people who have plenty of opportunities to tell lawmakers how they feel about a new millionaire's tax.

BECKEL: Wealthy Americans have more access to lawmakers than most regular voters and constituents do.

SEABROOK: Though, not everyone agrees that the flow of money in politics creates a conflict of interest for lawmakers on some issues. Roger Pilon, of the libertarian think tank the CATO Institute, says just the opposite.

Dr. ROGER PILON: They're not going to be affected or corrupted by any single small contribution. In fact, the more money there is, the less potential there is for such corruption.

SEABROOK: If a lawmaker votes against a millionaire's tax, Pilon believes it's because of his or her political ideology, not because of a campaign donation.

So what we have here is a kind of chicken and egg question. Which came first, the donation or the decision on how to vote for a particular bill? For the wealthy, opportunities to lobby against the millionaires tax happen every day - all they have to do is pay the minimum donation, which could be 5,000 or even $30,000.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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