Mike Johnson, a man of ‘modest means,’ takes point on trillions in federal government spending

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While the Trump family has spent time in a New York court answering questions about whether it inflated the value of its billions in real estate assets, the new House speaker, Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson, the man who is tasked with negotiating a must-pass government spending bill, reports no assets at all beyond his house.

Perhaps more surprising than suspicious, it’s an oddity that speaks to the fact that power in Washington frequently has nothing to do with personal wealth.

The New York court has already determined that illusion of value helped former President Donald Trump secure better terms on loans and insurance policies. Journalists and good-government groups, meanwhile, are wondering how it can be true that a man like Johnson, who just got a nearly $50,000 raise to make more than $223,000 per year, can really not have a savings account and may not have a retirement account.

‘Look, I’m a man of modest means’

Johnson said on Fox News on Sunday that before coming to Congress, he was a lawyer focused on nonprofit work and that his father was a firefighter.

Now, by day he’s the point person for passing trillions in government spending and by night has said he’s helping his five kids through college and graduate school on a government salary and, apparently, not much else.

CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty reports that a review by CNN of Johnson’s personal financial disclosures and campaign financial documents suggest that since coming to Congress in 2017, the new speaker appears to be living paycheck to paycheck. Like many lawmakers, he’s been sleeping in his office while in Washington and will apparently continue to do so for the time being, a source with knowledge told Serfaty.

No assets listed on disclosure forms

Federal lawmakers are required to file an annual financial disclosure report, which lists assets, loans, income, stock sales and other transactions in broad terms.

Johnson does have a personal account, according to his office, but it doesn’t appear on the financial disclosure form because it is a noninterest-bearing account.

He’s also got multiple loans, including a mortgage of between $250,000 and $500,000, and a personal loan and a home equity line of credit (HELOC) each between $15,001 and $50,000, according to his 2022 financial disclosure form.

Teaching online classes for Liberty University in Virginia brought in nearly $30,000 last year. Values for his wife’s income from a Christian counseling company and also from her work for the Louisiana Right to Life Educational Committee are not listed. Read the two-page disclosure here.

In 2016, Johnson reported a retirement account with less than $15,000 that has not appeared on his financial records since. That account could have been rolled over into a Thrift Savings Plan – a form of retirement savings for federal employees – which Johnson reported from 2017 through 2020 and which he last reported was valued between $15,001 to $50,000.

Disclosures for the last two years make no mention of the account, which means that he could have cashed it out, that the account had less than $5,000 in it or simply that he stopped reporting it because reporting that type of account is not required.

If he stopped contributing to the account – and it’s not clear that he did – it would be a strange financial decision since the federal government matches employee contributions up to 5% of income.

Clerk of the US House of Representatives
Clerk of the US House of Representatives

A sign of financial strain or something else?

The Washington Post economics columnist and CNN commentator Catherine Rampell writes that Johnson should release more information as a matter of transparency.

“Holding your family’s entire savings in a non-interest-bearing account is a strange choice for a high-income household, particularly during a period of high inflation,” she writes.

“But more important, this arrangement still leaves voters in the dark about Johnson’s financial well-being. Whatever Johnson’s motivation for managing his money this way, the effect is to obscure what his resources actually look like and whether he’s under the kind of financial strain that other parts of his disclosures might suggest.”

Relating to most Americans

“I think that helps us be a better leader because we can relate to every hardworking American family,” Johnson said on Fox. “That’s who we are. And I think it governs and helps govern my decisions and how I lead.”

It’s fitting, then, that questions about Johnson’s assets, or lack thereof, dovetail with his first big test as House speaker: determining how to fund the government and approve aid for Israel and Ukraine.

So far, on that question of government spending, Johnson’s message from Republicans to the country at a Capitol Hill press conference this week was “trust us” and that Republicans would unveil a plan “in short order.”

Waiting for the government spending plan

In the same way that Johnson may be living paycheck to paycheck, the US government has been living from stopgap spending bill to stopgap spending bill.

The latest temporary funding bill lapses at 12:01 am ET on November 18, about a week from now unless lawmakers in Johnson’s Republican-controlled House, the Democrat-controlled Senate and the White House can agree to pass a spending bill. A partial government shutdown could result if there’s no agreement.

Both chambers have been working to pass the 12 individual spending bills that make up most discretionary spending, but they have not yet worked to reconcile their two versions and there is disagreement over how to approach President Joe Biden’s request for billions in aid to Israel and Ukraine.

In the past, lawmakers have either passed a short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, to keep the government functioning while they spend more time on spending bills or they have lumped some combination of all 12 spending bills into one massive spending bill, an omnibus, to fund the government for the year.

One potential idea floated by Johnson is for a laddered approach of continuing resolutions, by which certain agencies would get funding that lapses over time rather than all at once. That might blunt the effect of a Congress blowing deadlines, but it would also lead to a nonstop spending debate.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, are preparing their own version of another short-term spending bill just in case nothing materializes from the House in time.

Schumer warned Johnson on Thursday not to call for spending cuts at the last minute.

“Hard-right proposals, hard-right slashing cuts, hard-right poison pills that have zero support from Democrats will only make a shutdown more likely. I hope they don’t go down that path in the week to come,” Schumer said.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

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