Family Ties Run Deep in U.S. Politics

Feb. 6, 2004 -- It's one thing if nepotism gets you a role in a movie, or in your father's real estate business, but shouldn't politics be different?

Watch John Stossel's full report tonight on 20/20.

Government has tremendous power over our lives. I'd think this would be one area where nepotism would be taboo. But I'm wrong again. In fact, I'm totally wrong.

American political dynasties have been in power for much of the past century. John F. Kennedy became president, and then appointed his brother Robert to be U.S. attorney general. Both Vice President Al Gore and his father were senators from Tennessee. And not only was George W. Bush's father president, but his great-grandfather was a U.S. senator.

And it isn't limited to presidential and vice presidential politics. Family connections are all over the capital. Colin Powell's son was appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Elaine Chao, was appointed secretary of Labor. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist's daughter, Janet, was appointed inspector-general of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan congressman John Dingell, a Democrat, now occupies the seat once held by his father. So do Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, Jim Duncan, R-Tenn., and Harold Ford, D-Tenn.

The father of the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, was a congressman.

So were the fathers of three current senators, Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Bob Bennett, R-Utah.

Adam Bellow, author of In Praise of Nepotism, says we like this. "People love this," says Bellow, who is the son of novelist Saul Bellow. "They think it's terrific. If Americans didn't believe in nepotism, George Bush and Hillary Clinton would not be as popular as they are."

But Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, says nepotism in politics is a terrible thing.

"It combines the two most powerful motivations in Washington: procreation and power. And the benefit are the sons and daughters of the powerful elite."

Last year Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, gave up his Senate seat to become his state's governor. He said he examined the qualifications of 24 Alaskan officials to decide who should fill his Senate seat. And then, after long deliberation, he picked his daughter, Lisa Murkowski. She was a state senator.

"The appointment of Sen. Murkowski really took the gold medal of nepotism," says Turley, "It was sort of a perverse 'bring your daughter to work' day."

Lisa Murkowski says she deals with the criticism "straight on." She said, "The fact of the matter is, I'm in the United States Senate today because my father, who is now the governor, was able to appoint me."

Still, Murkowski says she believes her father gave her his Senate seat, because, "he believed that the best replacement he could make was me."

At least in Murkowski's case, Alaska's voters will get to decide this November if she gets to keep her job. She's logged nearly a quarter of a million frequent flier miles flying between Washington, D.C., and Alaska to try to show her constituents that she deserves their vote.

"An appointment gets me to the end of my father's term and that's it. After that, it's up to me to demonstrate that I can be the best senator that they would ever want," she said.

When Politicians' Relatives Become Lobbyists

But what about the less-visible nepotism? What about relatives of lawmakers who become lobbyists?

The Los Angeles Times recently uncovered some family ties between prominent politicians and lobbyists. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has a son who's made hundreds of thousands of dollars representing fishing and engineering businesses, the same special interests his father supports.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has a son-in-law who is lobbyist. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., has a son who lobbies for telecommunications companies and shipbuilders.

So maybe the children of politicians are smarter, or better-suited for these jobs than others?

Professor Turley scoffed at that. "The idea is that this is one branch from a great trunk. Well, you know, usually the branches have little to do with the trunk," he said.

Before Trent Lott's son, Chet, became a lobbyist, he ran several pizza places.

Turley says he's surprised by how open politicians are about nepotism. "What is amazing is that no one blushes anymore," he said, "Some of these appointments would make John Gotti blush. But you go into Capitol Hill, and it's considered perfectly fine. There goes Trent Lott's son, he's selling pharmaceuticals today. Yesterday he was selling pizzas. Outside Washington, that's enough to have you laughing on the floor. But in Washington, it's just standard operating procedure."

We requested interviews with Trent and Chet Lott, and with every member of the Senate Ethics Committee, and other members who had been criticized for similar nepotism. Not one would agree to an interview, though many have given statements about creating firewalls to "prevent any appearance of impropriety."

However, the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, Joel Hefley, R-Colo., did agree to talk to me about lobbying and nepotism.

Hefley said he doesn't know of anyone who has been punished for nepotism, and points out that his committee has no control over members' relatives.

"We only have control over the members," Hefley said.

In other words, if a politician's child calls a lobbying firm and says, "Hey, my dad's in Congress, hire me," Hefley's committee can't do anything about it.

Turley explained nepotism and lobbying on Capitol Hill this way.

"If a lobbying firm goes in to a senator and says, 'I'd like to give you $300,000 cash, and if you'll just move that bill out of your committee everyone's going to be happy,' members of Congress would say, 'I'm appalled! How dare you! And I'm shocked!' So he walks out of the room, comes back, and says, 'I'd like to give your son $300,000 as a lobbyist.' And the senator says, 'That's awfully decent of you. I've always thought that was the smartest child in my family.' The first example is a bribe. The second example is perfectly legal."

And apparently the public is not all that upset about it. There's been publicity about Trent Lott and Ted Stevens' sons and yet people keep voting for their fathers.

"It's hard to blame these members," Turley says. "You know, they're not to blame, ultimately. We are. I mean, we're the ones that let them do it."