Deaths, Resignations Put Clerk in Charge

Posted December 18, 2007 at 6:46pm

A spate of seven House vacancies in the first half of the 110th Congress, the majority prompted by the death of a Member, has pushed the House Clerk’s office into the role of temporary caretaker for a diverse set of districts across the country.

Whenever a House seat becomes vacant — in the case of a Member’s death, resignation or expulsion — responsibility falls to the Clerk’s office to continue the office’s operations until a new lawmaker is sworn in.

“It’s been pretty smooth,” Clerk of the House Lorraine Miller said Tuesday. She said no new staff was required to handle the responsibility, despite the office juggling as many as five vacant offices at one time.

“Our role is to protect the constituents in those districts until a Member is elected and that’s what we do. We make sure the office is open and functional,” Miller said.

Under House rules, any vacant office continues to operate — albeit performing only basic functions such as constituent casework and answering mail — on a nonpartisan basis.

On Monday, the Clerk’s office took responsibility for its seventh office this year — that of Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), who died Saturday after battling lung cancer.

The Clerk also is responsible for the office of ex-Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who resigned his House seat in late November.

Calls to the former Speaker’s one-time office now are answered by staff with an innocuous, “Office of the 14th district of Illinois,” keeping in line with the Clerk’s nonpartisan role in maintaining operations.

Both Democratic and Republican aides who have experienced the transition from a partisan Congressional office to an unaffiliated entity praised the Clerk’s office, saying the transitions tend to be well-orchestrated, even in instances when a Member’s absence is unanticipated.

“The Clerk’s office immediately comes in, they shut down the Web site, they meet with staff as soon as possible,” said a former Republican aide who worked in one such office under the Clerk’s jurisdiction, but asked not to be identified.

Similarly, one Democratic aide said of a transition during the 110th Congress: “They were actually just fantastic. It’s really as much or as little as you need.”

According to current and former House aides, the Clerk’s office assigns a liaison to work with House offices, typically coordinating with the chief of staff or other designee to manage the office, including expenditures such as staff pay and office supplies paid for through the Member’s Representational Allowance.

“They become the new office manager. … They process everything that has to do with the MRA, make sure there’s enough money to pay the bills,” the former GOP aide said. “They literally see every dollar [for] everything that happens in the office. Other than that, the office operates pretty normally.”

While the “vacant” offices provide constituent services, aides do not respond to press inquires and can provide only general information about a bill’s status in Congress. Any inquiries seeking further analysis or information about a bill or general topic are redirected across the Capitol to the appropriate state’s Senate offices.

In instances when a vacancy is expected, typically for a Member’s announced resignation, the Clerk’s office also provides preparation to aides to “close” the office — filing papers for preservation, for example — as well as preparing staffers for the subsequent “re-opening” when a new Member is elected.

“They come in beforehand if there’s any kind of notice and really help you out in the last few weeks if there’s anything you need to do to get ready,” said the Democratic aide.

“Towards the end, when there’s going to be an election, they’re very good in terms of shutting down the office. … They’re there every step of the way.”

In addition to the vacancies in Indiana and Illinois, the Clerk’s office has stepped in following the deaths of Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), who died in October; Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), who died in September; Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), who died in April; and Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), who died in February.

The Clerk also has supervised the office of Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), who resigned in July to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Despite the rash of Member deaths in the 110th Congress to date, including Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), the House Office of History and Preservation notes the number is comparatively low compared with some past sessions.

During one notable period of the 72nd Congress, 29 lawmakers died — 25 House Members and 4 Senators.

The number of special elections during that 1931-33 session also prompted a change in control of the House, as Democrats, who had lost the 1930 elections, became the chamber’s majority.