The requirement that all members of Congress file annual financial disclosure reports serves a worthy purpose. Passed as part of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, a post-Watergate reform, it's meant to flag potential conflicts while "ensuring public confidence in government through disclosure as an end in itself."
It also lets the public be nosy nellies, which is kind of fun.
The reports for 2011 became available recently. They can be found for House members through its office of the clerk, and for all members of Congress on LegiStorm, a website run by Storming Media, a private information company. Just click away at a U.S. map to locate the reports for that state's members of Congress.
Analyzing these reports is not easy, which is perhaps not surprising. Members of Congress identify the value of their various assets and income sources in ranges, such as "$250,001-$500,000." That makes it possible to tally minimums and maximums, but not exact amounts.
For example: Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) lists three investment assets with a total value between $501,003 and $1,016,000, depending on which end of the range is used. Almost all of this money is in a qualified blind trust.
Baldwin also lists liabilities between $200,000 and $500,000 for her mortgages on residences in Madison and Washington, D.C. That means Baldwin has a net worth of somewhere between $1,003 and $816,000.
See how much fun this is?
Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl (PDF), whom Baldwin is running to replace, reports assets and investment income worth at least $110 million. The upper end of Kohl's wealth is incalculable from this filing, because his blind trust and an investment in something called the Milwaukee Bucks both fall into the open-ended category of "over $50,000,000."
Suffice it to say that when Kohl leaves the Senate, the average worth of a U.S. senator is going to decline.
After Kohl, the Wisconsin congressional delegation's most valuable player appears to be Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac), who reported assets and investment income of between $10.5 million and $46 million. His largest holding ($5 million to $25 million) is in Walgreens Corp.
But wait: Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (PDF) identifies between $8.8 million and $38.9 million in assets and investment income, so depending on the actual totals he could be doing better than Petri. Johnson's largest investment is listed as "Charles Schwab (cash)."
Meanwhile, Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) (PDF) listed assets and investment income between about $650,000 and $1.7 million, and debts (mortgages on his home and other properties) of $360,000 to $865,000. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) (PDF) reported selling her assets off; they were valued between $5,000 and $75,000.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) got an extension and hasn't yet filed for 2011. His report for 2010 (PDF) lists between $5.5 million and $13.7 million from a diverse portfolio of more than 50 holdings, including BP, Exxon Mobil, Monsanto and Pfizer.
Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Ashland), the former Real World TV star, also received an extension. His report (PDF) from last year, as amended (PDF), lists assets worth between $110,000 and $400,000. It also lists debts between $210,000 and $550,000, including student loan debt, a mortgage and up to $100,000 owed on credit cards. Congress must feel like a good fit.
Besides the Senate race, which has four GOP contenders, and an open race for Baldwin's seat, all seven of the state's House incumbents face challengers this fall. The most vulnerable incumbents -- based strictly on how much money their opponents have raised -- are Republicans Ryan, Ribble and Duffy. But in each of these three cases, the incumbents have a fundraising edge.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.