Senate Death Gratuity Tradition Will Continue for Family of John McCain

Appropriators, leadership have yet to determine exact path for conveying payment

Sen. John McCain’s family will receive the traditional payment for lawmakers who die in office, but lawmakers have not determined the vehicle for conveying it yet. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After Sen. John McCain is honored this week, his family will be remembered with a personal payment in a spending bill, the long-standing practice of providing a death gratuity for a departed member’s survivors. The only question is, which spending bill will it hitch a ride on?

Congress traditionally offers a death gratuity to be paid to the family of any lawmaker who dies in office.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby said Tuesday that he did not know which spending package would include the payment for the McCain family. 

“That is a Senate tradition that we will do,” the Alabama Republican said, continuing,“We’ll do what we have to do, we’ll do the right thing.”

The Senate Handbook indicates that the gratuity will be inserted in the next appropriations bill. It is to be paid to the “next of kin” in the amount of one year’s compensation — $174,000.

House and Senate appropriators are expected to formally conference and approve a final fiscal 2019 Energy-Water, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction-VA spending package as early as next week.

“Our goal is to have an agreement, so we can have a conference as soon as we get back next week … a formal conference that is for the purpose of considering and hopefully approving the agreement,” Senate Energy-Water Appropriations Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said. The payment to the McCain family could be rolled into that package during next week’s meeting. 

The fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill included $174,000 to an heir of the late New York Democrat Louise M. Slaughter, the former House Rules chairwoman. She died just four days before the omnibus bill text was released, but lawmakers ensured that the gift was included in the Legislative Branch spending title. By statute, a death gratuity is considered a gift.

What is next for McCain’s office?

Staffers in McCain’s personal office won’t have to job-hunt immediately while they mourn and continue their work for Arizonans. They will be kept on the Senate payroll for 60 days and will operate under the direction of the secretary of the Senate. The expense of closing down a senator’s office is paid out of the senator’s official office account. With Arizona’s junior senator, Republican Jeff Flake, leaving office at the end of the year, staffers can’t expect to be absorbed into his operation.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has the authority to fill the seat opened by McCain's death, but he has announced he will not do so until after McCain is buried in Annapolis, Maryland, on Sunday. The appointee will serve until 2020, when a special election will be held for the remaining two years of the longtime Republican senator’s term. 

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report. 

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