It was 7:00 p.m. on December 23, 1967 on the floor of the United States Congress. Just two days before Christmas, former Iowa Congressman Neal Smith finally got his anti-nepotism legislation passed. 49 years later Smith’s legislation may prevent President Donald Trump from hiring his children or his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Congressman Smith’s late night legislation is cited today as the legal roadblock preventing Trump from appointing his family to government positions.
Congressman Smith, now 96, retired and living in Des Moines, agreed last week to recount the passage of his historic legislation with the Iowa Daily Democrat.
Congressman Smith served in the United States Congress from 1959 until 1995, the longest-serving Iowa Congressman. Beginning in 1961 he had attempted unsuccessfully every year for six years to get his legislation passed, failing to gain sufficient support. On that night in 1967, of the 434 House members, only 82 members remained on the House floor. He offered his legislation as an amendment to a federal spending bill managed by his friend Morris Udall, a fellow Democrat from Arizona. Initially in a voice vote, it was declared to have failed by the presiding officer. However, Smith persisted calling for a division that required members to stand and be counted. Smith said he was as surprised as everyone else when the head count was 49 in favor and 33 against. It had easily passed the House and but then he was concerned about its prospects in the Senate.
However, facing a public vote on hiring relatives, the Senate decided it was in their best political interest to accept Smith’s legislation. It passed the Senate, became law and today stands as an important impediment to Trump’s desire to put his family members on the payroll. Smith recalled his law was used once before to stop President Nixon from hiring his brother.
Asked if his legislation would prevent Trump from appointing his family, Smith responded, “read it and see what you think.”
He summarized from the US Code on restricting the employment of relatives that he authored:
“A public official including the President may not appoint a ‘relative’ (it includes a long list of relatives including children and son-in-laws) to a civilian position over which he exercises jurisdiction…or control any individual who is a relative of that public official.”
Asked about the target of his legislation back in 1967, Congressman Smith cited the number of Postmasters that had hired relatives. A study in 1961 revealed that 110 Iowa Postmasters had relatives working on their staffs. In addition, the secondary reason he pursued the restriction on hiring relatives was the fact that so many Congressman had traditionally hired their family members. At the time of passage in 1967, he knew of more than 60 Congressman that had relatives on their payrolls. To Smith that was just wrong and was an invitation to corruption. His legislation would have prevented President Kennedy from hiring his brother as Attorney General in 1961 had it been in effect at the time.
The Trump transition team has cited Hillary Clinton’s work on the Health Care Task Force during President Bill Clinton’s term. They have used that as proof that they could hire Trump’s relatives. Congressman Smith explained the difference. Hillary served as a non-official on the Health Care Task Force. Smith stands by his legislation and believes that Trump can’t appoint his relatives to official government positions, paid or unpaid.
Unrelated to his anti-nepotism legislation, Smith provided some perspectives on the recent election. He believes Democrats missed an opportunity to talk about where we are today economically as compared to 2008 when President Obama was elected. He said Democrats could have offered a message of hope as the economy has improved dramatically since the 2008 recession. The Democrats’ message just didn’t offer hope, when they had a powerful story of economic recovery they should have touted.
Congressman Smith served in the old Fifth District and later in the Fourth District, which required getting elected by some rural Iowans. When asked about Democrats losing rural and union voters in the 2016 election, he offered a unique perspective. He doesn’t believe job losses result solely from bad trade deals but rather from the expanding use of new technology and automation. Citing statistics, he suggested as much as 20% of job loss can be attributed to increased productivity as new technology replaces jobs.
In addition, he pointed to the important role of trade to Iowa. Iowa depends on a growing export market and he fears all the anti-trade rhetoric will lead to diminished markets for Iowa products. Describing trade as a balanced mixture of winners and losers he cautioned against an outright attack on all trade, warning that implementing tariffs will harm Iowa exports. He is concerned about the unintended consequences that could result in a reduction in Iowa export jobs.
One solution he put forth to maintain jobs and raise wages was a shortening of the work week. Increased innovation will continue to eliminate jobs as computers replace humans. His answer, consider a 36-hour work week in the near future. Reducing the length of the work week would require more total workers to perform the same amount of work. That would balance the increase in productivity and lost jobs due to automation.
At 96, former Congressman Smith remains as sharp as ever. Asked about his secret to a long and productive life he answered, “I never drank alcohol or smoked and that sure didn’t hurt.”
by Rick Smith