Vacancy: Congressional Offices That Lose Members Still Function

Posted March 27, 2012 at 6:12pm

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.”

So all operations become focused on constituent services and handling casework requests. In this way, district offices experience fewer changes in the transition from political to nonpartisan office: They were already making casework and constituent services their top priority.

But in Washington, D.C., where offices prioritize legislative advocacy and have day-to-day activities that typically revolve around a Member’s Congressional schedule and political agenda, the shift requires an adjustment.

“I think that was the hardest part, not being able to advocate for any particular issue once you didn’t have a Member,” said one staffer whose boss resigned in the middle of the legislative session. “It was frustrating for many people at first.”

Everyone becomes part staff assistant, pitching in on fielding constituent calls, responding to casework requests and undertaking administrative responsibilities. 

There are always gaps to fill, especially when staffers leave to take positions with other organizations or Capitol Hill offices.

Staffs also have to oversee the office’s “shutdown” — settling outstanding payments and contracts, finalizing inventory and, perhaps the most time-consuming task, archiving years and years of paperwork.

“He was kind of a hoarder,” Matthew Mazonkey said with a laugh of his former boss, the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who died while in office after nearly 40 years on Capitol Hill. “It’s no exaggeration — it took three full months to sort through everything.”

Changing Job Duties

The handful of staffers interviewed by Roll Call who have lived through the experience of working for a Member-less office all expressed initial feelings of disorientation following the Clerk’s takeover.

“I do think it was shocking and surprising,” said Mazonkey, who now works for Murtha’s successor (and former staffer) Rep. Mark Critz (D). “One day you’re working for a Member of Congress and the next day you’re suddenly told to stop doing what you’ve been doing for your entire career and focus on something else.”

But as one staffer who worked for a Member who resigned midway through the last Congress put it, House offices “come in more flavors than at Baskin-Robbins.”

So while there are similarities among offices in terms of their primary duties during a lawmaker’s absence, the pressures differ from suite to suite.

One staffer said his boss’s resignation came during appropriations season, forcing the team to struggle to find a way to represent constituents’ concerns for program funding when they had no lawmaker to push those concerns on the House floor.

Another staffer described a scenario in which everyone struggled to fill in the workload gaps as colleagues left in a mass exodus for other jobs.

Perhaps unique among the staffs that have dealt with Member-less offices over the past years is that of Giffords. For a year, her staff ran her Washington office with an expectation that she could return.

“We made a conscious decision early on that Gabby was elected Representative of this district and one crazed gunman would not overturn the will of the people,” former Communications Director C.J. Karamargin said. “So we assumed, and in a way we needed to believe, that Gabby would return to work. In our minds, she never left. She was injured on the job while performing her duties … and we were determined to keep the office running while she recovered.”

The staff sought out Members who allied with
Giffords in the past on many of her legislative priorities, such as border security. Staffers looked for lawmakers who could champion her causes.

“She always said that being a Representative is not just a job, it’s a job description,” Karamargin said.