America’s Congressional ‘Royals’

Carl and Sandy Levin being sworn in together in 1990. Sandy’s son Andy is bidding to continue that family dynasty this year. Photo: Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call

As huge numbers of Americans either stayed up crazy late or got up crazy early to watch the royal wedding, it’s as good a time as any to review our country’s own dynastic tendencies, which have from the very beginning belied our officially republican credo.

It’s hardly news that a number of families have held multigenerational power over elected and appointed office. Former Brookings Institution fixture and scholar of the presidency Stephen Hess once penned a point system for ranking political dynasties based on their accumulation of high-level posts (for the record, the Kennedys ranked first). A number of these dynasties occupied the White House at some point: not only the Kennedys of Massachusetts (and New York), of course, but the Bushes of Texas (and Connecticut and Florida), the Roosevelts of New York, the Harrisons of Ohio and Indiana, the Tafts of Ohio and yes, the Clintons of Arkansas and New York.

Powerful dynasties that fell short of the White House have existed all over the country, from the Lodges of Massachusetts to the Rockefellers (and Aldriches) of Rhode Island, New York and West Virginia; to the Breckinridges of Kentucky; to the Browns of California; the Byrds of Virginia; the Udalls of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado; the Longs of Louisiana; the Talmadges of Georgia; the Romneys of Michigan, Massachusetts and Utah; the Gores of Tennessee; and on and on.

In the old days, political machines often made dynastic successions possible. But they persist today, because whatever a famous political name may now lack in patronage jobs or sheer Election Day muscle, it still possesses via high name recognition; relationships with donors, activists and media; and in many cases, personal wealth.

According to a David Hawkings column for Roll Call in honor of the royal wedding, the percentage of members of Congress preceded on Capitol Hill by family members has for the last two decades ranged from 4 to 6 percent. Right now it’s at 5 percent, or 29 members, 15 of them Democrats and 14 Republicans.

Three congressional “royals” are retiring this year, including Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, whose father also served in the House, while four of his forebears were U.S. senators. Another retiree is Michigan Represenative Sandy Levin, who served alongside his brother, Senator Carl Levin, for over two decades. But that dynasty may live on without interruption, since Sandy’s son Andy is running for the House seat his father is vacating.

Perhaps cultural anglophilia, or distant filial loyalty to the mother country, explains some of the American fascination with the royals. But while dynastic successions here are not literally hereditary or automatic, they most definitely exist, though without the crowns.

America’s Congressional ‘Royals’