The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 requires that members of Congress file annual financial disclosure statements that detail the “ source, type, amount or value” of their household income and assets.
Because congressional disclosure rules simply mandate that filers report income and asset values within broad ranges —“$500,000 to $1 million” or “$1 million and over,” for example — it’s impossible to rely strictly on the annual reports to determine how much each elected official and his or her family is worth. The greatest benefit derived from the reports can be found in the sections that reveal the sources of income and assets.
The disclosure statements represent a flawed attempt to promote government transparency. They provide very general glimpses at the wealth held by federal elected officials and their family members.
The disclosure statement filed Aug. 13 by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat seeking re-election to a third term representing Maine’s 1st District, leaves no doubt that her household’s financial resources increased significantly as a result of Pingree’s June 2011 marriage to hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman. The Hill now lists Pingree as the 12th-wealthiest member of Congress.
After filing a three-page disclosure statement that listed no outside income and one asset for 2010, Pingree submitted a 12-page document that included 77 items denoted as Sussman’s assets in 2011.
The Maine Republican Party pounced on the fact that some of Sussman’s business holdings have links to China. “ I think this heavy investment in China is just another example of Pingree being out of touch with the average Mainer,” Republican spokesman David Sorensen wrote in a release titled “The Manchurian Candidate.”
It’s fair and appropriate to question how a politician’s personal financial dealings could influence votes and policymaking. It’s also reasonable to do so about a spouse if evidence exists to connect the spouse’s dealings to the elected official’s record or positions. That’s the intent of disclosure rules.
However, if the Maine Republican Party believes that Sussman’s interest in firms that do business in China undermines Pingree’s ability to represent Maine’s 1st District, they should support that argument with evidence.
Walmart, Apple and many other companies that fuel the U.S. economy make money from commerce with China. To give the argument credence as anything more than a political shot, the GOP would need to offer specifics on how Sussman’s investments negatively affect Maine or Pingree’s integrity as an elected official.
In the culture of Washington, D.C., power attracts — and often marries — power.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is married to former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who works for the Heritage Foundation and serves on corporate boards. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s net worth approaches $200 million, largely as a result of his marriage to Theresa Heinz Kerry, a member of the family that owns Heinz Ketchup. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s husband and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s wife both hold influential positions on the boards of multiple national corporations, according to Politico. Other examples of influential political spouses abound.
Marrying a powerful person doesn’t disqualify one from governing. Proof that either an elected official or spouse abused that power would.