Congressmen With Huge Credit Card Debt

A Hill of credit-card debt (The Hill)

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, according to a survey of financial disclosure reports conducted by The Hill. The findings come as the House is poised to take up a bankruptcy-reform measure that would give banks and credit card companies expanded powers to seek repayment from debtors who file bankruptcy.

Opponents of the bill drew hope from the data, suggesting that lawmakers who nurse high-interest debt might be more likely to sympathize with indebted consumers. High credit-card debt is often a factor in the decision to file for bankruptcy, although the root cause is usually related to a life-altering event such as a divorce, illness or the loss of a job, experts said. “Members aren’t that much different than regular Americans. Some run up high credit-card bills when they shouldn’t. One would hope that it would make them more sensitive to regular Americans earning far less money that are threatened by this bill,” said Travis Plunkett, legislative director at the Consumer Federation of America, which has opposed the bill on the grounds that it favors credit-card companies at the expense of average consumers.
Yet the 43 members identified in the survey were as likely to have voted for the bankruptcy bill when it came to the House floor in 2003 as were members without credit-card or similar revolving accounts.

In general, members of Congress were much less likely to have credit-card debt than the average American. About 51 million households carry credit-card debt at an average balance of nearly $12,000, according to Only 10 percent of House members had similar debt. The lawmaker reporting the highest credit-card debt was Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who noted that in 2003 he had between $80,000 and $175,000 spread across seven credit cards. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, listed five accounts with a total of $75,000 to $250,000 in debt. New York Democrat Gary Ackerman was third in the survey, listing “various credit cards” with a total balance of $50,000 to $100,000.

My guess is that a substantial amount of this is campaign related rather than a function of extravagent personal spending. Still, being a Member of Congress doesn’t preclude one from being financially irresponsible or living beyond one’s means. Indeed, it likely encourages the latter given the need to maintain two residences and the comparatively meager salary.

This passage, from later in the story, is interesting:

Ackerman, for example, said that he routinely transferred a high balance from one account to another, which would be reported in the same way if he had carried a high balance on all the cards at the same time. “If you do it carefully, you wind up paying nothing in interest,” he argued. “If someone is going to give you free money, I want to be in that line.” Asked if he planned to pay off the balance for good, he said, “If they keep offering zero percent interest for three months, I’ll do it forever. … Do you wanna loan me a couple of bucks at no interest?”

That’s a perfectly reasonable way to handle one’s finances. One wonders, though, if the backer of the card Ackerman is using would be considered to be making a campaign contribution by offering him zero interest financing. Presumably, so long as the card is widely available to non-Members, not.

via e-mail tip from a regular reader

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    What do you mean “relatively meager” salary? Last I heard, it was over $150,000 and rising. Plus perks.
    Give me a break.

  2. James Joyner says:

    $150,000k is comparatively meager for someone able to get elected to Congress and having to both maintain a residence in the District–$2 mil is the starting price for a decent place on Capitol Hill–plus back home.