Many of us have written letters to our representatives in Congress. Vote against lotteries, we urge. Please support aid for developing nations. Protect the Snittle-nose Prandicoot's environment. Some of us may even have written asking Congress to help Americans who are drowning in credit card debt or who might one day become entangled in it. We probably don't imagine that our guy or gal in Washington can really relate to the yoke of debt, but it turns out that many can.

"More than 40 members of the House reported carrying at least $10,000 in credit-card or charge-card debt in 2003 and parts of 2004," says Josephine Hearn of The Hill, citing a survey of financial disclosure reports conducted by the publication. That sounds like a lot, but it's less than 10% of House members. (Only one Senator, Norm Coleman, R-Minn., made the list -- he and his wife owed between $10,000 and $15,000 on a joint American Express (NYSE:AXP) card.)

How does this rate stack up to more average Americans? Well, Hearn cites these figures: "About 51 million households carry credit-card debt at an average balance of nearly $12,000, according to cardweb.com." I've seen -- and cited -- similar statistics myself. But I recently ran across some interesting contrary statistics, from Liz Pulliam Weston at MSN Money. She found that: "In reality, most Americans owe nothing to credit card companies. Most households that carry balances owe $2,000 or less. Only about 1 in 20 American households owes $8,000 or more on credit cards." (Still, that's a lot of people, and a lot of debt. If you or anyone you love are mired in it, our Credit Center can help you dig out. We can also open your eyes to how the credit card industry works -- it's pretty interesting stuff!)

Extenuating circumstances
So it looks like Congress' debtors might be overachievers. There are, though, some extenuating circumstances. For example, the financial disclosures that these folks must make can have them reporting their highest level of debt for the year, per account. So while they may have paid off some or all of their debt, their report won't reflect that. Also, some have simply ended up in debt due more to life's unexpected twists rather than utter fiscal irresponsibility.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), for example, sported five accounts with a total of $75,000 to $250,000 in debt. They're apparently mostly new debts, though. Hearn explains: "[Hunter's] six-bedroom home in Alpine, Calif., burned down in October 2003, causing a loss of more than $500,000. Although he received a hefty insurance payment shortly after the fire, he reported $85,000 in personal and car loans in addition to credit accounts, amounting to a much higher level of debt than he had reported in prior years."

Our own debt lives are chock full of extenuating circumstances, too. Of the tens of millions of Americans deep in credit card debt, many got there due to unexpected medical emergencies, job losses, and homes burning down -- calamities for which they weren't prepared. (It's not too late for you to get prepared -- have an emergency fund -- we can help.)

Conflicts of interest
This story is especially interesting given the recent financial climate in the U.S. Congress. Congress has approved increases in our national spending, funding wars and other things, which result in our national debt rising. As Americans themselves owe more and more, and look to options such as bankruptcy, Congress has responded by tightening bankruptcy rules, in favor of credit card issuers.

Are our congressional representatives influenced by the credit card industry? It's easy to imagine that many are. Among the debtors alone, Heard noted a few. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, for example, "was ... among several members who had received campaign contributions from the same bank or credit card company with which they held an account. Poe received $1,000 from Capital One's (NYSE:COF) political action committee. He and his wife have a joint account with the company that was reported at between $10,000 and $15,000." She added, "Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., received $6,000 from MBNA (NYSE:KRB) in 2003 and 2004. She reported a $15,000 account with the company."

Are these signs of foul play? Not necessarily. Politicians routinely accept donations, and as Americans, it would be hard for them to live without credit card accounts. Still, it does seem like a more ideal situation would be a world where corporations didn't wield much influence over Congress. (I once asked, Why are corporations permitted to contribute even one dollar to politicians?)

Some good news
It's not all bad in credit card land, though. For example, as Dayana Yochim recently explained, we are now all able to get a copy of our credit report free, once a year. And that's from each of the three main reporting agencies -- Equifax (NYSE:EFX), TransUnion, and Experian. So plan it well, and order one from each every four months, and you'll be able to monitor your credit throughout the year. (Why would you want to? Well, to avoid identity theft and keep your credit rating as high as possible. Your credit history now affects more than mortgages -- it can be checked when you finance a car, apply for a job, or buy insurance.)

Then there's ease of use. Credit cards are now even handier, as we can even use them in eateries such as Wendy's and Starbucks. (The downside: We tend to spend more when we charge than when we pay cash.)

Finally, some card issuers, such as Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and Wachovia (NYSE:WB), are hiking the minimum monthly payments they charge their customers. That's actually a good thing, because we need to pay off as much as possible when our bills arrive each month.

In sum
The bottom line is that if you're in credit card debt, know you're not alone. You even have friends in Congress. And if you're not in credit card debt, good -- stay that way! And plan to avoid it, by having an emergency fund.

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Selena Maranjian 's favorite discussion boards include Book Club , The Eclectic Library, and Card & Board Games. She does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.