Living Large on Capitol Hill

May 13th, 2008 by Phil Mattera

After being in office for a while, many lawmakers cannot wait to go through the revolving door to the private sector so they can earn a lot more than the salary of $169,300 currently paid to members of Congress. However, a new tool created by the Sunlight Foundation suggests that some senators and representatives do quite well in building up their nest egg while still on the public payroll.

The Fortune 535 is a website that approximates changes over time in the net worth of members of Congress. First among these accumulators of wealth is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who is estimated to have grown richer by some $210 million since 2000. Two others are said to have boosted their net worth by more than $100 million: Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Although the Fortune 535 is based on the personal financial disclosure forms filed by members of Congress and made available on the web by the Open Secrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics, its net worth numbers are not quite ironclad. That’s because legislators are allowed to report their assets and liabilities in exceedingly broad ranges. Fortune 535 combines the midpoints of the ranges for each asset and liability and compares the overall result for the earliest available disclosure form to the legislator’s most recent filing. The site does not attempt to explain the changes in the estimated net worth figures. By necessity, it is not the most rigorous data source, but it serves both to illustrate the flaws in the current financial disclosure system and to suggest that many members of Congress are not sharing the financial distress being experienced by their constituents.

Another new data source on Congress appears at first to contain more precise data. Legistorm has introduced the Foreign Gifts Database, which contains information on both tangible items and travel/lodging given by foreign governments to senators, representatives and their staff over the past decade. The database can be searched by recipient, country or description of the gift. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert, for example, reported receiving a ceremonial dagger from the government of Morocco worth $10,000. Hastert filed his reports on the dagger and other gifts only upon leaving office rather than within the specified 60 days after receiving the items.

Legistorm, which also provides databases of Congressional member and staff salaries and trips, also raises questions about the completeness of the reporting: Hastert’s filings are the only ones made by a member of the House in the past five years.

2 Responses to “Living Large on Capitol Hill”

  1. sir jorge says:

    I’m a “tech” manager for a small company and my salary is barely above what i used to make as a video store clerk.

  2. […] Elin of the Sunlight Foundation, whose new site Fortune 535 I wrote about recently, wowed even this sophisticated crowd with his description of a prototype tool called Influence […]

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