Before voters go the polls on Tuesday, candidates trying to win your vote will tell you a lot about themselves. They'll tell you about the policies they favor, the experience they have, and the things they'll do for you when elected. They may explain why their opponent isn't half the person they are. Yet in all likelihood, one thing you won't see in their last-minute television ads is information about how rich they are or what investments they own.
Elected officials, however, have to disclose their financial affairs publicly. And while digging through hundreds of forms may not be worth the effort to you, you can now find a lot of interesting information from a single source, thanks to the efforts of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
How it works
Every year, the president, vice president, members of Congress, cabinet members, and certain other officials must complete personal financial disclosure forms. The forms include a surprising level of detail. For instance, it's easy to discover that President Bush has checking accounts at Wells Fargo
As you look at a number of different elected officials, it's a bit surprising to see that although the average politician has more assets than the average person overall, the financial pictures of many politicians look a lot like those of any other group of Americans. Some politicians have large investment portfolios that are actively managed, while others have just a few stocks or mutual funds as investments. Even though the forms don't require disclosure of information on an official's primary residence, it's evident from information voluntarily provided by some politicians that their home is their largest asset, and their mortgage represents their largest liability. Nevertheless, on top of mortgage debt, many politicians appear to carry a number of other loans, including home equity and credit cards.
The CRP took all of this information and did a substantial amount of number-crunching to save you the effort of looking at each and every report yourself. The CRP website allows you to look at raw information and its analysis in several different ways. If you're interested in looking at the raw data from the forms submitted by an elected official, you can find a PDF image of that official's disclosure form. However, the CRP has also used the information on these forms to compile aggregate statistics and then rank elected officials by various measures, including overall net worth, assets, liabilities, and income from sources other than their salaries from government service.
What stocks Congress owns
In addition to looking at each elected official's financial information, the CRP has also compiled an overall list of the most popular investments among members of Congress. For instance, the stocks held by the largest number of members of Congress in 2005 were General Electric
The CRP also provides analysis of the overall sectors and industries in which elected officials invest. Although the wide ranges on the reporting forms make precise estimates impossible to determine, the CRP lists the overall financial services industry, including finance, real estate, and insurance, as the top sector in which elected officials invest. After a miscellaneous business category, the next highest-ranking sectors are communications and electronics, agricultural businesses, energy and natural resources, and health. When broken down by industry, real estate is the top category, followed by recreation, electronics, securities firms, and commercial banks. Crop production, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, miscellaneous manufacturing, and food processing round out the top 10.
Gossip for cocktail parties
Furthermore, while an official's personal finances may shed some light on serious matters of ethics and conflicts of interest, it's fascinating to look at some of the other tidbits of interesting information. For example, the disclosure forms require elected officials to disclose certain gifts they receive. Although Apple
Also, some politicians make a substantial amount of income from outside sources. For instance, during your last trip to the bookstore or your online bookseller's website, you may have seen a best-selling book written by your favorite or least favorite politician. If you've ever been curious about how much money that politician made from writing that book, now's your chance to find out the scoop -- simply pull up the author's disclosure form. By looking at the part of the form that discusses income from other sources, you'll find book royalty figures at your fingertips.
The Center for Responsive Politics has done an immense amount of work to bring all of this information to you in a usable form. With all of these tools at your disposal, it's easy to find yourself spending hours peering into the financial lives of politicians.
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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has too many skeletons in the closet to bother running for office, especially right after he packs up his Halloween decorations. He doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool's disclosure policy wants to earn your vote.