Back to Results

JOHNSON, Nancy Lee

JOHNSON, Nancy Lee
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1935–

Biography

During her nearly quarter century in the House, Nancy L. Johnson became the first Republican woman to gain a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee. Later, as the dean of the Connecticut delegation, she also served as the highest-ranking woman in the history of Ways and Means, where she became known as a diligent legislator deeply involved in the nation’s revenue policy. “When I was elected to, first the [state] senate, and then to Congress, it didn’t occur to me not to express my opinion or not to ask my questions,” Johnson remarked. “And I was good at asking questions. People often asked me to ask their question. Finally, I figured out that, actually, they needed to ask their question so I could ask my own.”1

Nancy Johnson was born Nancy Elizabeth Lee in Chicago, Illinois, on January 5, 1935, the daughter of Noble W. Lee, dean of John Marshall Law School and an Illinois state legislator, and Gertrude Smith Lee, a high school history teacher and department chair. “She told us first to find a career and then to have a family,” Johnson recalled of her mother’s influence. “She was a woman before her time.”2 Johnson credited her family upbringing as the foundation for her own work ethic. “We didn’t have much money but we had an extraordinarily rich childhood. It was not only rich in content and spirit, but it was rich in work. If there was something to be done, we simply did it.”3 Johnson attended the Lab School at the University of Chicago, earned a bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1957, and went to the University of London Courtauld Institute from 1957 to 1958, where she studied art history. She married Theodore Johnson, an obstetrician, and they raised three daughters: Lindsey, Althea, and Caroline. They settled in New Britain, Connecticut, in the 1960s.

As her children grew older, Johnson began to ponder her future. “They were getting into high school, and I had worked eclectically—a waitress, a nurse’s aide—whatever was around to make a little money going through college. . . .I was just kind of at sea, like a lot of women are after they’ve been out of the workforce for 15 or 16, 17, 18 years.” An active member of the community, she had a knack for politics and enjoyed “meeting all kinds of people and seeing all kinds of structures and organizations.”4 At the urging of the local Republican committee, Nancy Johnson successfully ran for the Connecticut senate in 1976—the first Republican in more than 30 years to win from solidly Democratic New Britain. She served in the state senate until 1983. “I valued my time in the state senate tremendously,” she noted, because “you did all your own casework. You wrote all your own letters. You were it. And you learned a lot that way about how the law actually impacted people’s lives, and where the law needed to be changed or repealed.”5

In 1982 Connecticut Representative Anthony John Jr. (Toby) Moffett decided to run for the United States Senate. Tired of the same routine in the state legislature, Johnson, upon the urging and support of colleagues in the senate, decided to run for Moffet’s seat in Congress.6 She won the Republican nomination and faced a fellow member of the Connecticut senate, Democrat William Curry, in the general election. In a district that encompassed northwestern Connecticut, including the towns of Litchfield, Bristol, and New Britain, Johnson’s campaign reflected the limited government philosophy of the Ronald Reagan administration but largely stayed out of the culture wars; both Johnson and Curry supported abortion rights, and both opposed constitutional amendments to allow school prayer.7 “I had lots of volunteers,” Johnson recalled of her first congressional campaign, “just flooded with volunteers, and they were everywhere. People would ask them, ‘What are you doing out here?’ ‘Well, I’m working for Nancy Johnson. You ought to really vote for her.’ And they would always have concrete things they could say. So, there was a lot of enthusiasm.”8 Johnson prevailed by a margin of about 7,000 votes—52 percent to Curry’s 48 percent.9

During her first term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Johnson served on the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. In her third term, Johnson joined the Budget Committee. In 1988 Johnson became the first Republican woman ever named to the distinguished Ways and Means Committee, relinquishing her other committee assignments. Ways and Means has jurisdiction over America’s tax and revenue laws, making it one of the most powerful committees in Congress. Johnson had to fight to win her seat. “I had one male member of the Republican Party say to me, ‘Well, there’s already a woman from Connecticut on, Barbara Kennelly.’ I said, ‘Yes, and there’s two men from Tennessee. And Connecticut is the number one exporter and trading state in our nation on a per capita basis. Why shouldn’t Barbara and I represent it when you’ve got these two from Tennessee and these two from Kentucky’—the old boys’ states? So, he shut up.”10

Eventually Johnson rose to chair three subcommittees on Ways and Means: Oversight (104th–105th Congresses, 1995–1999), Human Resources (106th Congress, 1999–2001), and Health (107th–108th Congresses, 2001–2005). Johnson’s position on Ways and Means provided a means for her to work on America’s trade policy, including the North American Free Trade Act. “Politics is really about building a consensus for solutions for hard problems,” she once said.11 During the 104th Congress (1995–1997), Johnson also served as chair of the House Ethics Committee (officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct). At the time, she was one of just a handful of women in congressional history to chair a full committee.

In 1994 Johnson considered running for governor of Connecticut. Despite widespread support and indicators of a strong candidacy, she ultimately declined to enter the race. “I personally feel that it would have been better for the party, better for women if I had run,” she acknowledged. “But you can’t run for that reason. That doesn’t sustain you through a campaign. You can’t do it for others.”12

Johnson’s passion for policymaking tipped the scales in favor of remaining in Congress. The timing of her decision also proved beneficial when Republicans won control of the House in the 1994 midterm elections for the first time in 40 years. With her seat on Ways and Means, Johnson had the opportunity to draft legislation featured in the “Contract with America”—a list of policy promises that Republicans had run on in 1994 and was championed by Newt Gingrich of Georgia who became Speaker in the 104th Congress. With her growing influence in the House, Johnson was selected as one of only eight Republicans to design a broad overhaul of Medicare. As a principal author of the health care bill, Johnson oversaw the addition of prescription drug coverage, care for chronic illnesses, and other changes to Medicare. She also spearheaded the child support enforcement section of the GOP’s welfare reform legislation.13

While Johnson normally supported Gingrich and his sweeping agenda, Johnson’s concern for women and children occasionally put her at odds with Republican leadership. She sought to moderate the party’s welfare reform legislation by sponsoring a successful amendment that kept welfare recipients on the Medicaid rolls. Johnson fought to preserve welfare eligibility for mothers with children younger than 10 years of age, exempting those families from the five-year limit on access to benefits proposed by Republicans. Johnson also advocated for a program that allowed homemakers to contribute to an individual retirement account an amount similar to that contributed by their wage-earning spouse.14 “There are not enough women to raise the issues, and not enough women to push them,” Johnson told USA Today in 1992. “Without sort of a critical mass of women to raise and push some issues, men simply don’t learn about them.”15

Along those lines, Johnson was an active member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus, and in 1997 she served as co-chair with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, DC. “The Congresswomen’s Caucus was a nice way for the women across the aisle to be able to let their hair down,” Johnson recalled. “Sometimes we just talked about handling babysitting, and commuting, and obnoxious men on the road, the funny things that you run into. But other times we did. . . develop allies to cosponsor a bill.”16

From her seat on the Ways and Means Committee, Johnson looked for ways to improve the relationship between the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and American taxpayers. In 1996, for instance, she shaped and steered through the House the Taxpayer Bill of Rights II, which, among other protections, replaced the Taxpayer Ombudsman with the more independent Office of Taxpayer Advocate to help resolve issues with and answer questions about the IRS. On the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, Johnson also sponsored legislation creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which required working directly with the William J. (Bill) Clinton administration.17

“Making policy at the federal level is, by its nature, a process that requires entertaining conflicting goals and opinions,” Johnson said.18 She frequently voted with Republicans on fiscal policy and often crossed the aisle to vote with Democrats on social issues. She sought out relationships with likeminded lawmakers. “What was really most useful was that Stewart Brett McKinney [of Connecticut] got me into what was called the Wednesday Group,” she remembered. “That was a relatively small group that met weekly and that you had to be invited to join. Each week you’d go around the circle, and you had two minutes—there was a timer—and you talked a little bit about what was going on politically in your state or what you were doing legislatively.”19 Johnson played an active role in the organization—which later became the Republican Tuesday Group—and found it a useful resource for learning more about her colleagues and issues affecting other regions of the country.20

Over time, Johnson solidified her hold on the district, winning re-election with anywhere from 64 percent in 1984 to 70 percent in 1992. Only once, in 1996, did she face a tough general election—when she won by about 1,500 votes, weathering charges by Democrats that as chair of the Ethics Committee she had softened an investigation into a book deal by Speaker Gingrich.21

In 2002 Johnson won re-election after Connecticut lost a seat during the reapportionment process. A large part of her former district had been merged with a district in the southwestern part of the state, bringing in the towns of Danbury and Waterbury while moving Bristol into an adjacent district. In the race for the new seat against three-term Democratic incumbent James H. Maloney, Johnson prevailed by a margin of 54 to 43 percent of the vote. Completing her twentieth year in Congress, Johnson became the dean of women in the House (a distinction she shared with Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, also elected in 1982) and the dean of her Connecticut congressional delegation. At the start of the 108th Congress (2003–2005) she was the fourth-ranking Republican on Ways and Means. Johnson won re-election to a twelfth term in 2004 with 60 percent of the vote, making her the longest-serving U.S. Representative in Connecticut history.22

During the 2006 elections, Johnson, like many Republicans, faced a difficult re-election as voters looked to move on from the George W. Bush administration. Her Democratic opponent, 33-year-old Connecticut state senator Christopher Murphy, campaigned by linking Johnson to the Bush administration’s unpopular Iraq War policies and to the Republican-controlled House which had low approval ratings. “There was a huge backlash against [President] Bush, and I could feel that,” Johnson later explained. “[Voters had] gotten more and more discouraged with the fact that the right things weren’t happening, and I’d been there a long time. And I was tired.”23 On election night, amid an electoral wave that swept Democrats back into control of the House, Murphy defeated Johnson by a 12-point margin. After leaving Congress, Johnson worked as a senior advisor for a Washington, DC, consulting firm.24

Footnotes

1“The Honorable Nancy Lee Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (3 December 2015): 7. The interview transcript is available online.

2Aamer Madhani, “Gertrude Smith Lee, 101, Teacher,” 3 October 1999, Chicago Tribune: C8.

3Michele Jacklin, “The Private Nancy Johnson,” 9 January 1994, Hartford Courant: SM10.

4“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 3.

5“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 2–3.

6“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 8, 12–13.

7Matthew L. Wald, “Race in the Sixth District Is a Battle of Contrasts,” 19 September 1982, New York Times: Section 11, 2.

8“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 15.

9Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

10“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 41.

11Stephen Ohlmacher, “Candidates Approach Issues from Differing Perspectives,” 29 October 1994, Hartford Courant: A3.

12Jacklin, “The Private Nancy Johnson.”

13John A. MacDonald, “Johnson Finding Spotlight Can Be Hot,” 6 November 1995, Hartford Courant: A1.

14Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999): 136.

15“31 Women, 31 Voices on Capitol Hill,” 1 April 1992, USA Today: 4A.

16“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 32.

17House Committee on Ways and Means, Taxpayer Bill of Rights 2, 104th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 506 (1996): 24; Taxpayer Bill of Rights 2, PL 104-168, 110 Stat. 1452; Matthew Daly, “Rowland Touts Health Care Plan, Credits Johnson,” 28 October 1997, Hartford Courant: A3; John Springer, “Johnson Proposes More Aid for Child Care,” 23 January 1998, Hartford Courant: A4.

18“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 59.

19“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 21.

20“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 26.

21Editorial, “6th District: Nancy Johnson,” 25 October 1996, Hartford Courant: A16; Jonathan Rabinovitz, “After 7 Terms, A Tougher Race for a Gingrich Fan,” 31 October 1996, New York Times: B6.

22“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

23“Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 62-63.

24“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

[ Top ]

External Research Collections

University of Connecticut Library
Thomas J. Dodd Research Center

Storrs, CT
Papers: ca. 1980-2007, 205.4 linear feet. The Nancy Johnson collection contains correspondence, reports, administrative records, clippings, photographs. The collection has not yet been organized for unassisted research use. Researchers wishing to access this collection must make prior arrangements with the Curator before visiting Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassettes and Sound Tape Reel: 1982-1990, 10 commercials on 3 videocassettes and 5 commercials on 1 sound tape reel. The commercials used during Nancy Johnson's campaigns for the 1982, 1988, and 1990 U.S. congressional elections in District 6 of Connecticut, Republican Party.
[ Top ]

Bibliography / Further Reading

Johnson, Nancy L. "The Changing American Family. In A Newer World: The Progressive Republican Vision of America, edited by James Leach and William P. McKenzie. Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1988.

"Nancy L. Johnson" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Petri, Thomas E., William F. Clinger, Jr., Nancy L. Johnson, and Lynn Martin, eds. National Industrial Policy: Solution or Illusion. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc., 1984.

[ Top ]

Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families
  • House Committee - Standards of Official Conduct - Chair
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
  • House Committee - Ways and Means
    • Health - Chair
    • Human Resources - Chair
    • Oversight - Chair
[ Top ]

Related Media

Overcoming Resistance

The Honorable Nancy Lee Johnson describes the way she maneuvered for a seat on the Ways and Means Committee.

The Honorable Nancy Lee Johnson, U.S. Representative of Connecticut
Interview recorded December 3, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

"Freshmen Are to Be Seen but Not Heard"

The Honorable Nancy Lee Johnson describes speaking on the House Floor.

The Honorable Nancy Lee Johnson, U.S. Representative of Connecticut
Interview recorded December 3, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Women Need to Be Prepared

Betsy Wright Hawkings recalls the sage advice she received from former Representative Nancy Johnson of Connecticut.

Betsy Wright Hawkings, Chief of Staff, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut
Interview recorded April 18, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)