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Congress makes new financial disclosures

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Sarah Gardner: We’re getting a glimpse this week into the private lives of members of Congress. And no, I don’t mean their DVD rentals or favorite watering holes. Under the law, they have to release yearly financial disclosure reports.

Marketplace’s David Gura has the skinny on where Congressmen and women invest their money, who they owe, and how that’s all about to change.

David Gura: There’s plenty that catches your eye in these reports. Congressman Trent Franks has a patent for a pepper spray dispenser worth more than $100,000, for example. But thumb through them, and you see the big picture:

Vin Moscardelli: The disclosure documents give us a basic sense of which members are wealthy and which ones aren’t.

And some of them really are, Vin Moscardelli says. He teaches political science at the University of Connecticut. Sen. Herb Kohl owns an NBA team. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has a lot of pricey property. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has six figures in his bank accounts.

Moscardelli: There is a lurid quality, or a bit of a voyeuristic quality, to looking at who owes money, who doesn’t owe money, where people have invested, where they’ve gained, where they’ve lost.

But it’s also a way to spot conflicts of interest. That may be easier in future filings, now that Congress has passed the STOCK Act. Bob Biersack is with the Center for Responsive Politics. Soon, he says, the Senate will have to start putting its disclosure documents online. Right now?

Bob Biersack: You have to physically go to the Senate and collect these documents, bring them back, and try to make sense of them.

Members of Congress will also have to disclose the terms of their mortgages, and report when they buy or sell stocks or real estate. Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State, says the goal is to assure the public that members of congress won’t profit from what they learn on the job.

Andrew Taylor: That they know their elected representatives are not exploiting this kind of privileged information for their own personal gain.

And that, Taylor says, could increase confidence in Congress. 

In Washington, I’m David Gura for Marketplace.

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