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Full Disclosure

Every June when Senate financial disclosure forms are released, news accounts inevitably focus on how many, and which, Senators are millionaires. Even though $1 million isn’t what it used to be, it’s a harmless, voyeuristic activity. The reason Senators are required to file, though, is to spotlight potential conflicts of interest. And, for this, the forms are less helpful than they should be.

Senators are required to itemize their assets, but they have to list the value of each only in 11 ranges — $1,000 to $15,000, for instance, or $50,000 to $100,000, or $1 million to $5 million and on up to $25 million to $50 million and “over $50,000,000.” This makes it difficult to calculate the net worth of most Senators with any accuracy, especially the wealthier ones. Many Senators have dozens or even hundreds of individual assets. When the value is listed only within ranges, calculating a Senator’s total assets is likely to be off by hundreds of thousands of dollars — or tens of millions, in some cases.

The value of an individual asset — say, stock in Citigroup or Fannie Mae for a member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, or in Boeing for a member of the Armed Services Committee — might be worth $101,000 or $250,000. From the required filings, it’s impossible to tell whether the asset — and possible conflict — falls in the high end of the range or the low.

A handful of Senators have cut through the fog by straight-forwardly listing the exact amount of every one of their assets. They include Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). Durbin’s full disclosure makes it possible to indicate how far off the net-worth calculations are of other Senators. Durbin’s total comes to just over $1 million. But if each asset were listed only by range, it could be calculated at $550,000 — close to half the actual amount.

When Roll Call totaled up each Senator’s net worth under the most conservative of assumptions, we estimated that the Senate now contains at least 45 millionaires. But the number could well be 60 if the value of assets were at the higher end of the range, rather than at the lower. And beyond the uncertainties of using broad ranges for disclosure, Senators aren’t required to report the value of their principal residences, vehicles, other personal property and their Senate pensions.

The handful of Senators who went beyond the call to offer full disclosures provided an accounting of those non-required items, as well as a complete listing of their assets. It could be argued that Senators have a right to have some of their financial affairs remain private, but an opponent who wants to make an issue of the value of a Senator’s home can find the number in local tax records.

So, we would argue that financial disclosure forms should be complete for everyone. Yes, it will satisfy popular curiosity about Senators’ wealth. But it will also help highlight potential conflicts of interest — and that’s a result that’s in everyone’s interest.

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