Just as members of Congress are filing their latest annual personal disclosure reports (due this Thursday), we are launching "Fortune 535," a new Web site which lets you track how much, or how little, lawmakers’ wealth has grown during the past 11 years — the period of time from which lawmakers’ personal financial data is available.
For the first time ever, we compiled and visualized online lawmakers’ net worth from personal financial disclosure filings to show the growth in net worth for each member of Congress from 1995 to 2006. These filings reveal lawmakers’ personal finances-assets, liabilities, outside income-and the gifts and travel provided for them by outside organizations. Fortune 535 also lets you compare the net worth growth of each lawmaker to that of the average American family, and lists the wealthiest lawmakers (Rep. Jane Harman, Rep. Darrell Issa and Sen. John Kerry), those with the greatest change in their net worth, those who began their congressional careers with no net worth and those whose net worth was less than $0 in 2006. Sen. Clinton, for example, started her Senate career with over $6 million in debt, but is now worth over $30 million.
One thing we learned while working on this project: measuring lawmakers’ net worth is very difficult (and sometimes impossible) because of the seriously flawed disclosure system used by members of Congress. Because the personal financial disclosure reports lawmakers file asks for assets and liabilities in ranges, we could not determine whether some lawmakers, like Speaker Pelosi, are extremely wealthy or on the verge of declaring bankruptcy (or somewhere in between). That’s why we support more precise reporting requirements as well as full online disclosure and preservation of lawmakers’ personal financial disclosure reports.
"Fortune 535" relies on the personal financial disclosure database at OpenSecrets.org and archive, but since that data only dates back to 1995, we dug through the archives of the Library of Congress Law Library to retrieve personal financial reports (required by law since 1978), that were previously only available on paper. We made available PDFs of these first personal financial disclosure reports filed by lawmakers, as part of Sunlight’s goal to make more government information publicly accessible on the Internet.
For each of the 535 members of Congress, there are 535 individual stories told through stock portfolios, rental houses, mortgages, student loans and ownership of stock in multi-million dollar corporations. The data we reveal should certainly raise questions for citizens and journalists to ask about the rising and declining fortunes of their elected officials.