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For Capitol, Sad News Travels Fast

The Handling of Colleague Deaths in the Hill Community Is Bound by Tradition

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
In an unusual instance, when former Sen. George McGovern died, many people on Capitol Hill were notified by the tributes on Sunday morning talk shows.

On Sunday morning, people tuning in to the day’s talks shows were greeted with an array of tributes to Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), the champion of liberal causes and 1972 presidential nominee who had died early that morning. 

That is not how the Capitol community usually finds out about the death of a former Member.

In an era of near-instantaneous digital news consumption, the House and Senate still receive some of the most sensitive information — the death of a former colleague — through word of mouth.

“Typically when a former Member of Congress passes, the family will contact the sitting Member of Congress of the district that the former Member represented or the dean of the delegation to inform them of the passing of the former Member. This information is then passed along to the Clerk’s office,” a House Administration Committee aide said. 

In addition to McGovern, Congress has seen the deaths of a number of its former Members in recent weeks: Reps. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), Mervyn Dymally (D-Calif.) and Sam Steiger (R-Ariz.) and Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and John Durkin (D-N.H.). 

For figures such as McGovern and Specter, media reports were plentiful, and there was less an element of surprise. The announcement of McGovern’s death was distributed to the media early Sunday morning by Steve Hildebrand, a veteran political consultant based in South Dakota who has worked for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as well as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and numerous Senate campaigns. 

For folks such as Steiger and Durkin, who had been out of office and out of the public eye for decades, the information finds its way to the Capitol the old-fashioned way.

That was how the Senate Historical Office found out about Durkin, who died Oct. 16, according to Associate Historian Betty Koed. “For instance, with Sen. Durkin, we heard from Sen. [Kelly Ayotte],” the Republican who occupies Durkin’s former seat. 

The Sergeant-at-Arms offices coordinate protocol for what happens next, such as notifying the Capitol community via email about funeral arrangements, whether to send flowers or charitable contributions and other logistical information.

“It’s up to the family, what they wish and what they’re comfortable with,” a spokesperson for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms said. “We just want to make it easy for them.” 

The Clerk of the House and the Senate Historical Office update the Member’s profile fairly quickly, as soon as the news is confirmed. 

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