Just about every person who’s ever run for office has had a brother knocking on doors, an aunt licking envelopes, or a spouse and kids featured in a campaign commercial. But that’s usually volunteer work. Sanders put his wife on the Burlington city payroll and made a company of hers, Progressive Media Strategies, a top recipient of campaign cash. His congressional reelection campaigns paid one of his stepdaughters more than $50,000 over four years; a nonprofit his wife started, the Sanders Institute, paid her son, David Driscoll, a $100,000 salary. Biden has a sister and son whose companies received large contracts from his last presidential campaign; about one-fifth of the $11.1 million raised by that campaign went to companies that employed close relatives.
It is perfectly legal to pay family members with campaign funds or put them on the payroll as long as they provide a bona fide service and their salary is fair. Dozens of members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, have employed family members on their campaigns. Political families, and the money they distribute to their members, have existed as long as politics has. Approximately 40 of President Ulysses S. Grant’s family members and family connections benefited from his presidency. Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower had sons working in their White House. John F. Kennedy appointed his brother Robert as attorney general, which led Congress to pass anti-nepotism laws banning close relatives of the president from working in the executive branch. Then there’s Trump.
Yet the ethics of the practice are clear: “It is unsavory for politicians to be making payments to their family members when there are other alternatives out there,” Robert Maguire, the research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan good-government group, told me.