Benjamin Franklin once proposed that elected officials not be paid for their service to the nation -- a proposal that was quickly struck down by other representatives.
However, it must be said that during the recent recession, members of Congress did conform somewhat to the idea of "austerity" and quietly declined their annual salary bump for the second year in a row.
Regardless, members of Congress have continued to see their wealth grow. Many saw their fortunes increase by millions of dollars. The combined minimum net worth of this year's 50 wealthiest lawmakers was $1.6 billion, over $200 million more than last year's (2010) group.
Methodology: We compiled this list according to each member's financial disclosure report, which he or she is required to file every year. But members are only required to report the values of their assets and liabilities in broad price categories (one category ranges from $5 million to $25 million), so these reports don't give an exact picture of net worth.
For example, if an investment falls into the "$5 million to $25 million" category, we have no way of determining if it's worth $6.1 million or $24.7 million. The only thing we know for sure is it's worth at least $5 million.
Based on this, members are ranked based on minimum net worth. This number is calculated by adding the minimum value of all reported assets and then subtracting the minimum value of all reported liabilities.
Bear in mind, these financial disclosures report each member's "minimum net worth," so each lawmaker's actual net worth could be much higher.
Here are the five members of Congress with the highest net worth, according to their 2010 financial disclosures:
5) Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) -- $76.3 million
When Warner joined the Senate in 2009, he was one of 11 freshman members that made the list of 50 wealthiest congressmen. Since then, his net worth has grown $6.1 million, making him the wealthiest junior Senator.
Not another trust fund baby, Warner made his millions in telecom and venture capital. He co-founded Capital Cellular Corporation and was an early investor in Nextel Communications, which was bought by Sprint (NYSE: S) in 2005 for $36 billion. Warner was also the founder and managing director for Columbia Capital, a venture capital firm that he's still invested in.
Warner also grows grapes on his Virginia farm for Ingleside Vineyards, and has his own private label that he offers at charity auctions.
4) Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) -- $81.6 million
It should come as no surprise that much of Rockefeller's wealth comes from the family that made his last name famous. Many of his assets stem from the fortune made by his great-grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil.
Many of his assets are family trusts, the two largest of which are worth at least $50 million and $25 million.
Rockefeller's wife, Sharon Percy, is a board director at PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) and holds more than $1 million in the company's stock.
3) Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) -- $193.3 million
With a reported minimum net worth of $193.3 million, Senator Kerry probably doesn't have to worry that there was no salary rate hike this year.
Where is the bulk of Kerry's cash from? His wife is heir to the H.J. Heinz Company (NYSE: HNZ) food fortune. Her net worth is estimated to be between $750 million and $1.2 billion.
In August 2011, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appointed Kerry to the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a new committee created in the wake of the debt-ceiling crisis. The 12-member group is responsible for recommending a plan to cut an additional $1.5 trillion from the budget over the next 10 years.
2) Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) -- $220.4 million
Coming in second (for the third year in a row) is ex-Army captain and Riverside/San Diego County Representative Darrell Issa, with a minimum net worth of over $220 million.
A Grand-Theft-Auto-type stunt pulled by Issa and his brother served as the inspiration for the business that would make him millions -- car alarms. Issa founded Directed Electronics (Nasdaq: DEIX), the nation's largest aftermarket auto electronics manufacturer. Even if you've never heard of Directed Electronics, you've probably heard of its Viper system, which asked passers-by to "Please step away from the car" (voiced by Issa) when they were too close.
Issa is one of 257 congressmen who have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a written promise stating that signers will oppose all tax increases.
1) Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) -- $287.0 million
Everything really is bigger in Texas -- even the wealth of its politicians.
In 2010, McCaul's fortune grew an astounding $213 million, propelling him past five congressmen (including long-time wealthiest member Sen. Kerry) to the top spot. When McCaul was first elected to the House in 2004, his minimum net worth was $12 million.
This meteoric rise in McCaul's net worth appears to come from large transfers of money to his wife, Linda McCaul, from her father, Clear Channel Communications founder and CEO Lowry Mays. According to his 2010 financial disclosure, all of McCaul's assets are attributed to his wife and dependent children.
By Meredith Margrave of InvestingAnswers.com