Could Gabrielle Giffords be forced to resign for health reasons?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 11 2011 4:43 PM

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. Click image to expand.
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.

Advertisement

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.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technocracy
Oct. 20 2014 11:36 PM Forget Oculus Rift This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.