Remembering Senator John McCain
(Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the First Branch Forecast on August 27, 2018.)
McCain Senate office building? In his tweets commemorating the life of Sen. McCain, Sen. Schumer said he would introduce a resolution to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after McCain. Richard Russell was a Democratic lion of the Senate who dominated the chamber for 30 years — he served almost 40 — and was that chamber’s leading opponent of the civil rights movement. He coauthored the southern manifesto with Strom Thurmond that called on southerners to use all lawful means to resist desegregation. In 1972, the old Senate Office Building and New Senate Office Building were named after Russell and Everett Dirksen via a resolution offered by Sen. Byrd. In an ironic twist, Senator Philip Hart spoke out against the measure, arguing “it is unwise to anticipate history’s verdict.” In other words, he advised Senators to look at the sweep of history and not choose a contemporary merely because of personal affection. The existing buildings were being renamed because a third Senate office building was under construction and the old nomenclature would not work. Why was it ironic? That new building was named in August 1976 after Senator Hart, the conscience of the Senate, who was suffering from a terminal illness. Read the 1972 resolution and Senate debate here.
Lying in state. Multiple news outlets reported Sen. McCain would lie in state in the rotunda. Generally speaking, that requires a concurrent resolution, i.e. a resolution passed by both chambers, but this CRS report explains how congressional leaders of both chambers have jointly authorized its use when Congress is out of session, such as for President Ford. Also note there’s a distinction between lying in state and lying in honor: President Ford received the former, Rosa Parks received the latter. NPR, quoting the now Historian emeritus for the U.S. Senate, Don Ritchie, explained the difference: “When a member of government dies, if his casket is on display in a government building — including the Capitol — he lies in state. If his casket is in any other building, he lies in repose. If the person is not a member of government, he lies in honor.”
What will the Senate do? Upon the death of a senator, his or her desk likely will be draped in black, a resolution of condolence will be passed by the Senate (and sometimes by the House), and floor time is set aside for eulogies, according to CRS. The Senate may pay for funeral services; it’s up to the discretion of the Sergeant at Arms to pay for transportation, preparation, and disposition of the remains. The Senate may also pay for the costs of a delegation to the funeral; Sen. McCain will be buried at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It is regular practice for the Senate to give a “death gratuity” to the spouse, a gift of a year’s pay, or $174,000, in the following year’s appropriations bill. In light of modern insurance and the wealth of many senators, this gift has become controversial.
What happens to McCain’s staff? Personal office employees are kept on the Senate payroll for 60 days, operating under the direction of the Secretary of the Senate; it is unclear what effect the appointment of a replacement would have. In theory, committee staff are unaffected — McCain chaired the Armed Service Committee — but in practice they are subject to the whims of the new chair, who often brings in their own people. In both circumstances, this can work a hardship on staff, especially as hiring for offices is out of cycle and they risk losing their health insurance and having a difficult job search. This may be exacerbated by the retirement of the junior senator from Arizona, who might be expected to absorb some staff. Senator McCain’s personal office has had a slightly higher than usual staff turnover rate, at 28% in 2018, which is at the median rate for the Senate as a whole, but his turnover rate hasn’t exceeded 20% for the last decade, according to a review of Legistorm data. Some staff have served McCain for years, and their departure would be a huge loss to the Senate as an institution; he was first elected to the Senate in 1986.
What happens to McCain’s seat? In Arizona, Senate vacancies are filled by the governor, and the appointee will fill the seat until 2020. State law requires that the replacement be of the same party as the deceased senator. Governor Ducey says McCain’s replacement will not be named until after the funeral.