How is 'incapacity' handled by Congress?

2011-01-11T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:47:22Z How is 'incapacity' handled by Congress?Rhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 11, 2011 12:00 am  • 

If she chooses, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords can continue to serve indefinitely while she recovers from her gunshot wound. While there is a procedure to remove her if she is unable to personally perform her duties, it is seldom used.

While doctors have continued to express optimism about her recovery, questions have been circulating about her status since she was rushed to the hospital Saturday after being shot in the head while meeting with constituents at a northwest-side supermarket.

Here are some answers to common questions.

Q: Is there a "caretaker" provision, in which someone may be temporarily appointed to take over official business?

A: No.

Q: Is there any requirement for a member of Congress to step down if incapacitated?

A: There is no protocol established in the Constitution, in federal law, or congressional rule that sets up what will happen if a member is unable to serve because of "incapacity." There is generally great deference given to the wishes of the member.

In a recent case, two-term Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., had brain surgery following an aneurysm in December 2006. On a ventilator and in critical condition for weeks, he spent seven months recovering in near total seclusion. He eventually returned and handily won a third term in 2008.

In February 1981, the House for the first time vacated the seat of a member who became impaired, because she was mentally and physically unable to discharge the duties of the office. Rep. Gladys Spellman of Maryland had a heart attack two days before she won re-election to her fourth term in 1980. She survived, but lapsed into a coma and never regained consciousness before her death in 1988.

Q: If Giffords were to resign, what is the process?

A: Arizona's statutes say that if a vacancy is called by the U.S. House speaker, the governor has 72 hours in which to call a special election. A primary election must be held within 90 days of when the vacancy is declared. A general election must be held within 60 days after the primary. The victor will serve the remainder of the original congressional term.

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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