Complicated Protocols Determine When Capitol Flags Fly at Half-Staff

Posted October 28, 2013 at 5:13pm

With recent deaths of members of the congressional community, the occasionally confusing protocols on how to fly flags over public buildings have come to the attention of the Capitol community.

The executive branch, for instance, did not issue a proclamation ordering flags to a reverential half-staff position immediately after the deaths of former Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., and Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla.

The White House did issue statements about the president’s solemn regards to both but did not specify flag procedures. Despite the absence of executive action, the Flag Code (4 U.S.C. 1) states: “by order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government. … In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law.”

President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend Foley’s invitation-only memorial service in Statuary Hall on Tuesday afternoon.

Congress did not pass a joint resolution to lower flags on the Capitol complex, but Senate and House leaders chose to lower the flags above each chamber.

Although they’re in the same building, the offices of the House speaker and the Senate majority leader have the ability to make individual decisions regarding the flags on the roof of each chamber.

Beyond that, the architect of the Capitol is responsible for the two flags on the east and west side of the center of the building, taking instructions from joint House leadership. Capitol Police handles the lowering and raising of the four total flags on the Capitol.

In accordance with the Flag Code, flags should be flown at half-staff on the day of death and the following day for a present or past member of Congress.

As part of tradition and the official Flag Code, it is to “be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should again be raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.”

In the case of Foley, “the duration of the flags on the Capitol complex to fly at half-staff was pending funeral arrangements being finalized for former Speaker Foley,” said a spokesperson for the Senate sergeant-at-arms.

In the past 12 months, Obama has issued six proclamations following the deaths of political leaders and national tragedies.

The Benghazi attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, warranted flying flags at half-staff for four days.

Flags were lowered on Oct. 16, 2012, in honor of the death of former Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.

The third proclamation came Dec. 14, when 20 children and six adults were killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The proclamation’s duration lasted for five days and was extended on Dec. 18 in honor of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. Flags were raised again on Dec. 22.

After the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, flags were lowered to half-staff through April 20. The six-day tribute was one of the longest in recent history. Following the Navy Yard shooting on Sept. 16, the president ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff and remain at that position through sunset on Sept. 20.