Family dynasties: How power begets power in Congress

Steeling ourselves for what could be yet another Bush vs. Clinton presidential contest in 2016, now may be a good time to take a closer look at dynasties in American politics. In an era when voter dissatisfaction with elected officials is soaring to record highs, are we really prepared to keep voting the same names into office over and over again, in a bizarre electoral reenactment of the movie "Groundhog Day"? Short answer: yes.

In 2009, a trio of economists waded through the entirety of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress in order to figure out just how many members of Congress came from families that had previously placed a member in Congress. Read on for some of their key findings.

8.7 percent of Congress members have come from dynastic families

congressional dynasties over time

Across all Congresses -- House and Senate -- from 1789 to 1986, nearly nine percent of legislators came from families that had previously sent a member to Congress. The prevalence of these dynastic legislators has decreased over time. "While 11 percent of legislators were dynastic between 1789 and 1858, only 7 percent were dynastic after 1966," the authors write. And that number has been mostly flat, according to an October 2013 analysis by Chris Wilson of Time, who found that 6.9 percent of current House and Senate members -- 37 in total -- come from dynastic families.

The Senate is almost twice as dynastic as the House

political dynasties in the House and Senate

As for senators, 13.5 percent have come from dynastic families, versus only 7.7 percent of representatives. One of the key findings of the dynasty paper is that political power is self-perpetuating: "Legislators who hold power for longer become more likely to have relatives entering Congress in the future. Thus, in politics, power begets power."

Senators serve six-year terms, versus two-year terms in the House, so senators have more time to accumulate power and influence, which can then pass on to subsequent generations.

Dynastic families have been a force for congressional gender equality

Female legislators are nearly three times as likely to come from dynastic families as are men -- 31.2 percent vs. 8.4 percent, respectively. This is partly due to the practice of widow's succession, whereby a wife "inherits" her husband's congressional seat after he dies. Widow's succession initially played a major role in breaking the gender barriers in Congress. But it's become less prevalent since the mid-1900s, and only two current congressional women -- California Democratic Reps. Doris Matsui and Lois Capps -- initially took office after the death of a spouse.

Historically, political dynasties have been more prevalent in the South

political dynasties by region

But the North-South dynastic divide has disappeared in recent years.

Dynastic families are more prevalent in politics than in any other field

family dynasties by profession

The authors of the dynasty study compared the legislators to members of other professions by calculating each field's dynastic bias -- that is, the relative likelihood that a member of a profession had a father in that same profession, controlling for the relative frequency of occupations among fathers. The dynastic bias is almost 10 times stronger for legislators than for economists, and 15 times stronger than for doctors. Among all occupations with at least 10 recorded instances in the General Social Surveys, none has a greater dynastic bias than legislators.

To put it another way: The likelihood that your senator's dad was also a senator is much, much higher than the likelihood that your plumber's dad was also a plumber.

*BONUS -- Republicans have not won a presidential election since 1928 without a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket

I'm including this factoid because it seems too improbable to be true -- but it is true -- and because it also highlights the surprising power that family dynasties have held in presidential politics. It's been 86 years since that 1928 election, which is exactly the length of time Boston Red Sox fans suffered under Bambino's Curse. Is the modern-day GOP afflicted by a Curse of Tricky Dick? Find out in 2016.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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