The Washington Post

Some Republican freshmen in Congress hold major debt, disclosure forms show

Members of the firebrand class of Republican freshmen on Capitol Hill — elected on a pledge to attack the U.S. debt problem — have, in some cases, accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in personal debt, according to financial documents released Wednesday.

Among the 87 new GOP members of Congress, the documents show, at least 30 had liabilities totaling $50,000 or more in 2010.

Those debts included large mortgages on investment properties, as well as student loans and credit card balances. At least seven freshmen had credit card debt exceeding $15,000.

The newcomers have helped press a simple GOP message about the public debt: The country has too much and must reduce its burden immediately. These documents seem to show that, in their private lives, some freshmen took a more nuanced view: Debt could be useful, when put toward furthering ventures in real estate, farming or other businesses.

The documents present the most complete financial picture to date of a group that promised to remake Washington with the values of the American heartland.

Judging from members’ bank accounts, the freshman class has elements of both places.

It has brought at least 24 new millionaires to a Congress that already had plenty. But many freshmen, like thousands of other Americans, entered 2011 with significant debt.

“If they’re responsible for their own personal finances, then they may have a mind-set to be frugal with the federal Treasury,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “But if they can’t keep their personal finances in order, then you have to wonder how they’re going to handle the federal budget.”

Among those with credit card debt was Rep. Blake Farenthold (Tex.), who has pressed for major action to control the national debt. Earlier this year, Farenthold issued a statement rejecting any increase in the debt limit without major spending cuts.

“Like the rest of America,” the statement said, ‘the government needs to tighten its belt and work within its means.”

Farenthold’s 2010 disclosure forms show credit card debt of $45,000 to $150,000. A spokeswoman for the congressman said she could not comment, because she had not located his accountant to discuss the filing.

The documents released Wednesday are annual disclosure forms, on which all lawmakers are required to list income, assets, liabilities, stock trades and other data.

They are an imperfect way to measure true wealth. The forms do not list exact amounts of assets or debts, only ranges. And they do not include mortgages — a significant piece of a homeowner’s overall debt — for properties that do not generate rental income.

Among longtime lawmakers, the forms illuminated one of Washington’s oldest truisms: Many of the capital’s most powerful figures also have significant wealth.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), a former plastics executive, reported financial holdings of at least $2 million. His top deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), was worth at least $3.4 million. Cantor’s wife serves on the boards of Domino’s Pizza and a major media company.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, is worth at least $1 million, much of it from his wife’s family holdings in an Oklahoma mining company and an Oklahoma gravel company.

The House’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), along with her husband, Paul, a San Francisco real estate magnate and financial investor, were worth at least $42 million at the end of 2010.

Among House members elected in 2010, the picture is incomplete: Twenty-three of all 96 freshmen filed for an extension, so their information was not available.

Among those who did file reports are some with considerable wealth. Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.). a former oil-field services executive, listed at least $8 million in assets. Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), a lawyer, listed more than $2 million. Rep. Scott R. Tipton (R-Colo.), whose company sells Native American pottery, showed at least $2.9 million.

Among the nine Democratic House freshmen, three had assets worth more than $1  million: Rep. William R. Keating (Mass.), Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.) and Rep. Colleen W. Hanabusa (Hawaii).

In other cases, the disclosure forms showed that freshman lawmakers had been living on more modest means. Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who squeaked to victory with tea party backing, reported that his assets might be as low as $3,004. Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) reported that his assets might be as low as $36,036.

Among those with significant debt was Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.), who had been accused of playing down his debt during the campaign. The disclosure documents show that he is carrying $1.6 million to $6.4 million in loans relating to his family’s 2,500-acre farm in Frog Jump, Tenn.

A spokesman for Fincher, Washington lawyer Elliot S. Berke, said the loans are not an indication that Fincher has a problem with debt.

“I think quite the contrary,” Berke said, adding that the loans were incurred to finance farming operations, and that some of them were taken out by Fincher’s father and also signed by the lawmaker.

“Sure, if you look at the raw numbers, it looks like there’s . . . over $1 million in debt,” Berke said. “But that’s not really the way farming works.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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