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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.
“The Clerk’s office monitors on a daily basis news soaurces for biographical details that need to be updated,” the House Administration Committee aide said. “Typically, the passing of a former Member is not updated on their official bio until it’s reported and documented. … Once it’s reported, then it’s immediately updated,” the aide continued.
“It’s kind of an ongoing process,” Koed said. “For some Senators, especially ones who have been away for a number of years and living in, say, Arizona, we do regular searches of local media,” she said.
In this sense, these historical offices operate like the obituary desk at a newspaper, doing regular searches, checking in with sources, keeping an open line of communication with the public and relying on institutional memory to guide them on where their people of interest reside and the state of the former Members’ health.
Decisions about whether to fly flags at half-staff or whether to have a public service in the Capitol’s common areas are made by leadership offices.
“Rooms can be reserved by any Senator,” the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms spokesperson said of facilities in office buildings or the Capitol Visitor Center, for instance. “But if you’re referring to something in common space, that [is] a joint leadership decision.”
After funeral services on Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D., McGovern will be laid to rest in Washington, D.C., at Rock Creek Cemetery, next to his late wife, Eleanor.
It is a ceremony in which the Senate will play no formal role, per the family’s wishes, according to the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms spokesperson: “That’s private.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.