What happens when a Member of Congress resigns?

Vacancies are common.

Resignations in Congress are not uncommon. In the 114th Congress, Representative Michael Grimm resigned before he was event sworn in. Roll Call noted that this was the sixth resignation in six years.

Members resign for a variety of reasons: some due to scandal, some for what they view as better gigs, some for health reasons.

The 113th Congress had eleven vacancies before it was over. Three seats were not filled until after the midterm election, when Reps. Alma Adams, Dave Brat, and Donald Norcross were sworn in on November 4th, 2014. By running in the midterm rather than a special election, their districts were saved considerable expense. These three members also received a bump in seniority by starting work a full two months before others elected in the midterms, and earning the distinction of having served in the 113th Congress.

Special elections are expensive.

When a senator resigns, the governor of the represented state may immediately appoint a successor. For the House of Representatives, things are more complicated. The Constitution (Article I, Section 2, Clause 4) requires that Representatives must be elected — and provides for a special election to be called to fill the seat.

Special elections can cost taxpayers anywhere from $300,000 to $3,000,000. Activists in one California district even suggested that the retiring Member should cover the costs of the special election herself, when former Rep. Jane Harman resigned to become head of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. (At the time, she was the third wealthiest member of Congress.)

Constituents are left unrepresented in the House.

Given the extensive special election process, districts left behind when a Member of Congress calls it quits are inevitably without representation for several months. Formally, the House Office of the Clerk takes over management of the office, where existing employees continue to work.

Constituents of a vacant district have no voting representation in Congress. The interim office cannot take positions or advocate policy.

  • Constituent messages about policy to the vacant office are acknowledged. Staff can answer questions about the status of bills, but cannot offer explanations or positions.

  • Staff can continue to help out with casework — so inquiries about Medicare, Social Security, immigration, etc., can still proceed on your behalf.

  • Staff can still help with tours or order flags that have been flown over the Capitol.

Constituents can still use POPVOX.

On POPVOX, we try to strike a balance for the constituents of vacant districts. Positions and comments are still registered in public bill reports, messages are delivered to the office, even though the input will not affect the decisions of a voting Member. 

In many ways, a transparent record of what constituents have to say on the issues is even more important in these cases. If no representative is in place to hear the opinions of the constituents, at least the local newspaper or the candidates vying to fill the seat can take note.