American Culture

Fortune 535: How wealthy is Congress?

Jane Harman, who represents California’s 36th District, may be the wealthiest member of Congress. She may also be running second as the member of Congress who has seen the greatest accretion of net worth since attaining her House seat in 1994.

According to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation called Fortune 535, Rep. Harman’s net worth in 2006 may have been $409,426,887, up from $241,334,326 in 2000. (Sunlight bills itself as “a catalyst to create greater political transparency and to foster more openness and accountability in government.”)

The site allows inspection of each member of Congress in terms of net worth. Tabs lead to “Wealthiest,” “Greatest Change,” “Started with $0 or less,” and “Ended 2006 with $0 or less.”

It’s great fun. But Fortune 535’s worth is not its revelation of congressional wealth; rather, it demonstrates the weaknesses in the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 that requires financial disclosures by members of Congress. That’s why “may” is the operative word regarding Rep. Harman’s wealth.

According to Fortune 535, members must:

… disclose information on their personal finances, including their assets, sources of income, transactions and debts. (However, lawmakers are not required to report everything they own, including the value of their personal residences, nor their related mortgages.) They report the value of their and their spouses’ assets, the amount of income – both earned and unearned – and the extent of indebtedness in broad ranges, making the forms a very inaccurate tool for measuring wealth. For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reported in 2007 that she and her husband have a net worth somewhere between $86 million and negative $9 million. Whether the Speaker of the House is extremely wealthy or on the verge of declaring bankruptcy (or somewhere in between) cannot be determined from her financial disclosure form. [emphasis added]

That’s the problem — the “ranges” of disclosure. It allows members to discreetly hide their holdings. In an e-mail announcing Fortune 535’s launch, Sunlight’s Paul Blumenthal says this about presidential candidate John McCain:

John McCain jumped from an average net worth of $8.8 million in 1995 to $36.4 million in 2006.

Two things, rules applying to financial disclosures allow a member of Congress to omit the assets and liabilities held by a spouse if the spouse’s assets and liabilities are held separately and the member has no knowledge of what the spouse holds. It appears as though McCain listed more of Cindy’s assets in later filings than in earlier ones.

Most importantly, John McCain files deceptive personal financial disclosure forms. From 1995 to the present the highest value range that a member can check is $50,000,001+. Prior to 1995, the highest range was $1,000,0001+. McCain still to this day checks $1,000,0001+ for a number of his assets despite having the option of checking the more accurate ranges of $1 million-$5 million, $5 million-$25 million, or the $50 million+. McCain is the only member I have observed who still does this.

Sunlight staff, creating Fortune 535 in part with data from the Center for Responsive Politics, found some members’ disclosure forms illegible. No member has answered requests for legible forms. But the ethics act does not, it seems, cover the issue of legibility. Bad handwriting becomes a form of deceit.

So wander through Fortune 535. Have a gander at the net worth of your favorite rep. But keep in mind that this congressionally protected “range” game degrades any attempt to fully understand the financial condition of a member of Congress, let alone any meaningful analysis of what an increase (or decrease) in net worth might mean in terms of the public’s interest.

CORRECTION: This post was edited May 14 to reflect that the site’s name is Fortune 535, not 435 as first posted. Mea culpa.

11 replies »

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  2. Four short years ago, by the way, Republicans far and wide were howling for Teresa Heinz Kerry to make her tax returns public. Those same folks are oddly silent about Cindy McCain.

    Frankly, I’m baffled.

  3. If I were in a public office, I’d be as vague as possible when asked about my net worth, because the current rules allow for vagueness.

    However, I’m an supporter of blind trusts as a requirement for holding a public office.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for things to change, regarding public disclosure of net worth aand income. Congress simply doesn’t have the will to force members to make a full and accurate disclosure.

    The Republicans were howling for Teresa Heinz Kerry’s returns because she was very political, with donations approaching those of George Soros(The Palindrome). Cindy McCain is just a trophy wife, without an original thought in her head. She doesn’t matter in the equation, as she’s more concerned with shopping. Oddly, she has one of the finest collections of Frederic Remington’s works, from what I’ve been told.


  4. Jeff, Cindy McCain is a trophy wife whose wealth is the reason John is still in the game. Her lack of partisan will strikes me as just about the most irrelevant thing in the entire campaign.

  5. McCain is still in the game because he’s the most palatable candidate in our camp, not because of Cindy. He’s considered to be the lesser of evils. Believe me, many Republicans are suffering over his eventual nomination. However, I happen to like the guy, as he wants to lower my taxes(which happens to be my personal litmus test).

    On a side note, I’m wondering what Hillary has on Obama….what bombshell she’s going to drop. She’s known for her tightness with a buck, and is committed to staying in the race. After all, why would she spend about 12 million of her own money for a losing cause??? According to some of my trading buddies(who know these type of things), she has something that is so big as to render Obama unelectable. If this is mere speculation, I don’t know. I have heard the same rumors in the financial circles for a couple of weeks, and they are affecting the market spreads. I don’t know whether to believe these rumours, and don’t really care if they are true or not, but note their existence. I do know that Hillary plays to win, and has a regal sense of entitlement, and would not put anything past her. If McCain could make a comeback, and Bill Clinton was the “Come-Back Kid,” why couldn’t Hillary stage a coup? Stranger things have happened. I do expect some fireworks, and will enjoy the show:)


  6. Jeff: Now you’re just being disingenuous. There are a lot of Republicans out there who are a LOT more palatable than McDubya, but none of them have a sugar momma like Cindy. It’s ridiculous for us to pretend that money doesn’t matter, on either the GOP or Dem sides of the debate. If John had married a poor woman – or rather, had he not divorced one – there’s no way in hell he’d be the nominee.

    As for Hillary, I feel like she’s angling for something. Not sure what she wants – a cabinet post? Can’t see her wanting to be VP, although that could be a possibility. I feel certain Obama knows what she wants and her continued presence in the race suggests that he doesn’t want to give it to her.

  7. Dr.Slammy,

    There might be a lot of Republicans that might be more palatable than McCain, but none of them were running for president. At the lowest point of McCains campaign, he was reduced to budget travel…..certainly Cindy would have given him a Gulfstream if she were a good sugarmomma. You’re right about money mattering.

    I’d like to see the size of Obama’s, Hillary’s, or McCain’s foreign bank amounts…..and before I get flamed for that one: Diversication of assets is a smart thing, and all three of them are very smart.


  8. Jeff, let’s think about plausibility here. McCain made a pretty good PR show of being at the point of homelessness during NH, but – we never saw him actually begging for change on street corners, did we?

    As for palatable candidates who weren’t in the race – you imagine they might have been if they’d had McCain’s money?

  9. Dr. Slammy,

    I certainly cannot imagine why one would want to have the job of President. It’s well beyond my capacity to understand the rationale, motivation, or hubris that goes into wanting such a job. It is my personal belief that “Public Service” is a very minor reason for the three current candidates for the job.


  10. IMO, the only reason someone should ever want to be President is public service. Alas, I believe as you appear to that power, greed, hubris, etc. are the real reasons for people seeking the Presidency. And our present system is set up that way.

    I’d love to see our federal government run as a pretty strict meritocracy, with the people best qualified to run the country actually doing so. Wealth and popularity (often purchased with wealth, unsurprisingly) are stupid reasons to vote for someone, yet that’s what happens most of the time.

  11. Brian…It would be nice if the government was run as a meritcoracy. However, the best minds are always going to be siphoned off by the private sector, leaving the second rate to be the career politicians….on both sides of the aisle.

    I’d like to see the government run by engineers, physical scientists, and mathematicians. They’re the real smart ones out there:)