Fit To Serve

Could Gabrielle Giffords be forced to resign for health reasons?

See Slate’s complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Gabrielle Giffords 

Doctors are cautiously optimistic that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona will survive being shot in the head in Tucson over the weekend. Giffords can respond to commands like squeezing a hand or holding up two fingers, doctors say, but it’s not clear how her verbal and motor functions will be affected. What happens in Congress when a member becomes incapacitated?

They keep their seat until they decide—or their family decides—that it’s time to step down. There are no rules in the House or the Senate that say a member of Congress must ever resign due to health reasons. In theory, a total vegetable could sit in Congress as long as their family refused to pull the political plug. Likewise, party leaders rarely pressure a member to step down—at least not publicly. That said, incapacitated members of Congress aren’t very effective. Their staffers may continue to write legislation and advocate for their constituents’ interests, but the members have little sway if they’re not physically able to show up for votes.

Only once has Congress ever vacated a member’s seat for medical reasons, and that was with her family’s permission after she was unable to take the oath of office.   Gladys Spellman, a congresswoman representing Maryland, went into a coma after suffering a heart attack just before Election Day in 1980. * She won re-election anyway, but after a few months, doctors said she remained in a sleeplike state and was unlikely to recover. Her family initially resisted vacating her seat, but finally, with their permission, the House voted on a resolution in February 1981 directing the state of Maryland to fill her seat. Spellman’s husband ran for her seat and lost; Spellman never came out of the coma.

If Spellman had been able to take her oath of office—and thus get her staff to work in the Capitol—her seat might not have been vacated. Other members of Congress have continued to serve long after being incapacitated. In the 1940s, Carter Glass, a senator from Virginia, was absent for four years due to ailing health. He refused to step down despite numerous pleas from the editorial boards of Virginia newspapers, and his staff continued to work during that time. (Glass was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.) He kept his seat until his death in 1946. When Sen. Karl Mundt, a Republican from South Dakota suffered a stroke in 1969, his wife took over running his office. Mundt would resign, she said, only if the governor of South Dakota agreed to appoint her as his successor. The governor refused. Mundt didn’t seek re-election in 1972 and was replaced by a Democrat. Sen. James Murray of Montana was so senile in the 1950s that his son ran his office and told him how to vote. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was hospitalized for long stretches in his final years, but he remained in office until his death at 92 in 2010. Despite suffering a stroke in 2006, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota won re-election in 2008 and continues to serve.

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Explainer thanks Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.

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Correction, Jan. 11, 2011: This article originally identified Rep. Spellman as a congresswoman from New York. She was born in New York but represented Maryland. (Return to the corrected sentence.)