The office of Rep. Donald Payne, who died earlier this year, is being run by his staff under the supervision of the Clerk of the House. The offices main priority now is constituent services.
What happens to a Congressional office without a Member?
Does it lock its doors and shutter its windows? Do the phones ring without reprieve while the constituent letters collect dust?
No, a Member-less office keeps running — just not the way it used to.
Congressional vacancies are not rare. Lawmakers leave in pursuit of higher office, get a better gig elsewhere or decide to step down for health reasons or in the wake of a scandal.
And for some Congressional staffs, a boss’s exit from Capitol Hill is more painful: The Member has died.
But regardless of the “why” of a vacant office in the Rayburn, Longworth or Hart buildings, the “how” any office is run in a Member’s absence follows a similar path.
‘Ward of the Clerk’
When a Member resigns, his office becomes, in the words of one staffer whose boss resigned midway through the 112th Congress, “the ward of the Clerk.”
The Clerk of the House, indeed, almost immediately swoops in following a lawmaker’s resignation and replaces that Member’s website with a form letter explaining that the office will continue to serve its district’s needs under the Clerk’s supervision and in a limited capacity.
“Until a new Representative is elected, the vacant congressional office cannot take or advocate positions of public policy,” the letter reads. “Constituents may choose to express opinions on legislation or issues to ... elected Senators or wait until a new Representative is elected and takes office.”
Staffers who have found themselves in these limbo periods say they would often refer constituents to Representatives in neighboring districts who might be sympathetic to their concerns.
“They were usually very helpful,” one staff member recalled.
There are currently three Congressional offices lacking representation: Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) recently resigned to pursue a gubernatorial bid; Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), after a yearlong absence as she recuperated from a near-fatal shooting at a constituent event in Tucson, stepped down to focus on her recovery; and Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), at age 77, died of complications from colon cancer.
None of these offices could respond to press inquiries from Roll Call for this article because their press shops no longer exist.
“When handling media responsibilities, a spokesperson is responsible for conveying the opinion [or] message of that Representative,” said Salley Wood, a spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee who also handles media requests for the Clerk’s office. “Absent a Representative, there is not a message that needs to be conveyed.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.