When a former Speaker of the House of Representatives or a sitting Member of Congress dies, the Chamber they served in will mourn their loss and express its condolences to the family in a number of ways. The practices used to honor a deceased Member have evolved over the years, but several are commonly used today. (For information about how congressional vacancies are filled, visit “Why are House and Senate vacancies filled differently?“)
As expected, the Congress adopts the most common public expression of sorrow: It lowers the flag to half-mast in memory of the deceased. A little-known fact, however, is that this is a matter of law, not just a tradition. According to law, the flag over the Capitol is to be flown at half-mast for 10 days for a former Speaker of the House. When a sitting Member of Congress dies, the flag is lowered for the day of death and the following day, and this period is often extended until the day of the funeral. (Although this post is primarily about how Congress honors its own dead, it is also worth noting that the President also typically remembers deceased Members of Congress. For example, when Senator Ted Kennedy died on August 25, 2009, President Barack Obama ordered the flags over government buildings to be flown at half-staff until August 30, the day following his burial.)
In addition to lowering the flag, the Congress will typically mark the death of a Member during its official proceedings. The House will often mark the death of one of its Members on the Floor. This has been done in a number of ways. A leader or a Representative from the deceased’s delegation might make an announcement of death. However, in the Senate, this is not done as frequently. According to the Congressional Research Service, there usually isn’t a formal announcement since the information becomes common knowledge quickly (although with the speed of modern technology, one wonders whether this is not also the case with House Members).
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In both Chambers, the Chaplain often remembers him or her in the daily prayer. When former Speaker of the House Tom Foley and sitting Representative C.W. “Bill” Young of Florida died around the same time, House Chaplain Fr. Patrick Conroy, SJ, commemorated both Members together:
As all return, the Capitol is in mourning for the loss of two men of the House, former Speaker Tom Foley and Representative Bill Young. Both men, a Democrat and a Republican, were known to be giants in the people’s House, and their passing has deprived our Nation of experience and wisdom in Congress at a time when it is needed.
Also, when the Chamber adjourns, it normally does so “as a further mark of respect to the memory of the deceased”. The House might set aside time for memorial speeches. A Congressional Research Service report notes, “Specific actions are contingent on whether Congress is in session, the business pending before the chamber, and the circumstances of the Member’s death.”
The House was out of session when Speaker Tom Foley and Representative C.W. Young died in 2013, so no tributes from the Floor were delivered immediately, but their colleagues offered statements through their press offices. In his statement on the death of Representative Young, Speaker Boehner noted, “Looking out for our men and women in uniform was his life’s work, and no one was better at it. No one was kinder too.” Likewise, the Speaker remarked on his predecessor, “Forthright and warmhearted, Tom Foley endeared himself not only to the wheat farmers back home but also colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
In addition to Floor speeches and the like, both Chambers typically pass resolutions expressing their sorrow at the death of the Member. The House’s resolutions are relatively simple. For instance, when Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate Representative Tom Lantos died, the body passed the following resolution:
Resolved, That the House has heard with profound sorrow of the death of the Honorable Tom Lantos, a Representative from the State of California.
Resolved, That a committee of such Members of the House as the Speaker may designate, together with such Members of the Senate as may be joined, be appointed to attend the funeral.
Resolved, That the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House be authorized and directed to take such steps as may be necessary for carrying out the provisions of these resolutions and that the necessary expenses in connection therewith be paid out of applicable accounts of the House.
Resolved, That the Clerk communicate these resolutions to the Senate and transmit a copy thereof to the family of the deceased.
Resolved, That when the House adjourns today, it adjourn as a further mark of respect to the memory of the deceased.
By contrast, the Senate passes a more elaborate resolution, noting accomplishments and distinctions the late Senator earned. For instance, in the resolution for the death of Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate notes that he was the longest-serving Senator, that he was on the Appropriations Committee for longer than anyone else, that he was “the first Senator to have authored a comprehensive history of the United States Senate,” and a number of other achievements.
Resolutions of sorrow do not have significant practical effects (except perhaps for authorizing a Sergeant-At-Arms to undertake duties and incur financial obligations in relation to the funeral), the body might even decide to honor their colleague with some other kind of resolution, like naming a building in his or her honor. For instance, the House has already voted to rename a Veterans Affairs hospital in honor of Representative Young. Two of the three Senate Office Buildings—Russell and Dirksen—were named in honor of a Senator who died in office. (The third, the Hart Senate Office Building, was named in honor of Senator Phillip Hart, who was already ill and died not long after.) There have been numerous similar honors for other Members of Congress.
In addition to producing public memorials via resolutions and speeches, Members also often have the opportunity to pay their last respects to their colleague in person. The two Chambers may also have an active role in the funeral or memorial services for the deceased, possibly even planning the funeral and defraying the associated costs. When a Member of Congress dies, a delegation of his or her colleagues may be selected to attend the funeral, or sometimes the ceremonies are held within the halls of Congress itself. A number have lain in state in the Rotunda, an honor that has also been shared with Presidents, Vice Presidents and Generals. Each body has also used its own Chamber for funeral services. The Senate has so honored some of its most illustrious members, including Henry Clay and Charles Sumner; it also held a service there for the disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy. The last service held in the Chamber was for Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), who was the longest-serving Member of that body—51 years, 176 days. The first funeral in the House occurred in 1820 for Representative Nathaniel Hazard. The last occurred in 1940, for Speaker William Bankhead. His successor, Samuel Rayburn, assumed the Chair while the casket was still present in the hall. Other memorial services have been held in National Statuary Hall. When a Chamber plans a funeral for one of its colleagues or simply sends a delegation, the body’s Sergeant-at-Arms has the responsibility for seeing to the ceremonial, travel, and other arrangements.
When a sitting Member of Congress dies, the balance of his or her unpaid salary is provided to the next of kin or a designated beneficiary, if one has been named. In the Senate, the Senate Disbursing Office determines whether any remaining pay or other benefits like health insurance is due to the family. Both Chambers also generally provide a monetary gift equal to one year’s salary to the beneficiary. This happened most recently following the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey; it was particularly controversial because the Senate made a faux pas by including it in legislation that ended the government shutdown, which was one front in the ongoing war over government spending.
Aside from the activities to honor the deceased, Congress must also ensure a smooth succession to the next person to serve. In the House, the Clerk assumes control of the vacant seat and directs the staff, who remain in the House’s employ. Although the constituents of the district do not have a Member who can vote for them, the staff is still available to help them with casework and to provide information on legislation. In the Senate, the Secretary is responsible for closing the vacant office, and staff are kept on the payroll for 60 days, unless the term would have expired sooner or the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration determines that the closing will take longer than two months. Per the U.S. Constitution, House vacancies are only filled via special elections, but state legislatures may empower their governors to fill Senate vacancies until a special election can be held.
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Work Consulted: Members of Congress Who Die in Office: Historic and Current Practices by R. Eric Petersen and Jennifer E. Manning for Congressional Research Service, April 25, 2012
This post has been updated since it was first published.