Heard on the Hill

Flashback Friday: When Congress put the brakes on nepotism

As Senate majority leader, LBJ had his brother and sister-in-law on staff

Sam Houston Johnson worked as an aide to his brother, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Yoichi Okam/Courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

They say, “Never mix business with family,” but lawmakers in the past had no problem with putting relatives on their staff.

A 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé in The Washington Daily News found around 90 members of Congress employing their wives, sons, daughters, bothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, uncles, fathers or in-laws as staffers and campaign managers.

“There is a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes nepotism on Capitol Hill. … The kinfolk parade is not going to be stopped,” wrote the author, Vance Trimble.

Lawmakers can still keep family on their campaign payroll, but a federal antinepotism law passed in 1967 now prohibits federal officials from hiring close relatives.

President Lyndon B. Johnson is believed to have strongly favored the legislation, given his dislike of Robert Kennedy. RFK served as attorney general under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and the law has since become known as the “Bobby Kennedy law.”

But Johnson himself was once singled out for nepotism.

When the Texas Democrat was Senate majority leader, he employed his younger brother, Sam Houston Johnson, as an aide. Sam’s wife, a former secretary to LBJ, also worked in the office. “I guess everybody in Texas knows I work for Lyndon,” the younger Johnson told the Daily News in 1959. “I’ve talked on the phone from here to about two-thirds of the editors down there.” “If a call comes in from Texas and Lyndon is out, the office will always say, ‘The senator isn’t here, will you talk with his brother?’” he added.

Sam Houston Johnson later wrote about his experiences in his book, “My Bother, Lyndon.”

Presidential nepotism did not end with Johnson and Kennedy. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed his wife, Hillary, to chair his health care task force. President Donald Trump has his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner on his staff as senior advisers.

Both presidents cited legal rulings that found the antinepotism law did not extend to White House staff.

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