Skip to main content Accessibility help

Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress1.

  • Forrest Maltzman (a1), Lee Sigelman (a1) and Sarah Binder (a2)


Charlie Wilson (D-TX) described his decision to retire from the U.S. House of Representatives as the best of the three options open to him: “To get defeated, to get carried out feet first, or to … start another life” (Gerhart and Groer 1995). Although much research has been undertaken on electoral defeat (Collie 1981; Ferejohn 1977; Jacobson 1992; Mann 1978) and voluntary retirement (Gilmour and Rothstein 1996; Groseclose and Krehbiel 1994; Hall and Van Houweling 1995; Hibbing 1982; Kieweit and Zeng 1993; Schansberg 1994), research on death is still in its infancy. Indeed, rather than staring death in the face, political scientists have buried the issue. In one recent study, for example, mortality is treated as a form of retirement:

Members of the House leave for a number of reasons, most prominent among them being electoral defeat and retirement. Other avenues of departure include death and expulsion. … Simplifying somewhat, we categorize all departures as either the result of electoral defeat or the result of ‘retirement’ (Gilmour and Rothstein 1996, 56).

Of course, some deaths—suicides—are voluntary. However, although many members of Congress die in office, suicide is extremely rare. Accordingly, we caution against treating death as a form of retirement. Otherwise, members of Congress must be presumed to engage in such implausible calculations as the following: “Let's see now. How shall I spend the next few years? I suppose I'll run for re-election. But maybe I should retire so I can spend more time playing golf. Or, since I'm thinking of retiring, why don't I just shuffle off this mortal coil, cross over Jordan's bank to the Stygian shore, pay my debt to nature, and join the choir invisible?”



Hide All
“Air Tests in the Capitol: Results Obtained With and Without Humidity Apparatus.” 1914. Heating and Ventilating Magazine 11 (September):2022.
Amer, Mildred. 1989. “Members of the U.S. Congress Who Have Died of Other Than a Natural Death While Still in Office: A Selected List.” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
Bootzin, Richard R., and Acocella, Joan Ross. 1988. Abnormal Psychology: Current Perspectives, 5th ed.New York: Random House.
Brown, Glenn. 1970. History of the United States Capitol. New York: Da Capo Press.
Bureau of the Census. 1960. Historical Statistics of the U.S., Colonial Times to 1957. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Burger, Timothy J. 1995. “For a Scare, Parker Digs Congressional Cemetery.” Roll Call (October 30).
Calver, George W. 1945. Testimony before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, Executive Session (June 12).
Collie, Melissa. 1981. “Incumbency, Electoral Safety, and Turnover in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1952–1976.” American Political Science Review 75:119131.
Congressional Globe. 1859. 35th Congress, 2nd Session. 21 January: p. 507.
Congressional Record. 1914. 63rd Congress, 2nd Session. 9 March: p. 4531.
Congressional Record. 1924. 68th Congress, 1st Session. 3 June: p. 10272.
Congressional Record. 1931. 71st Congress, 3rd Session. 14 February: p. 4921.
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare [Department of Health and Human Services]. Annual. Vital Statistics of the United States. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Drury, Allen. 1959. Advise and Consent. New York: Doubleday.
Eisle, Albert. 1995. “Members of Congress No Strangers to Violent Deaths.” The Hill (September 6).
Ferejohn, John. 1977. “On the Decline of Competition in Congressional Elections.” American Political Science Review 71:166176.
Gerhart, Anne and Groer, Annie. 1995. “The Reliable Source: Charlie Wilson, Kissing Congress Goodbye.” Washington Post (October 26).
Gilmour, John B., and Rothstein, Paul. 1996. “A Dynamic Model of Loss, Retirement, and Tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Journal of Politics 58:5468.
Groseclose, Timothy, and Krehbiel, Keith. 1994. “Golden Parachutes, Rubber Checks, and Strategic Retirements from the 102nd House.” American Journal of Political Science 38:7599.
Hall, Richard L., and Houweling, Robert P. Van. 1995. “Avarice and Ambition in Congress: Representatives' Decisions to Run or Retire from the U.S. House.” American Political Science Review 89:121136.
Hibbing, John. 1982. Choosing to Leave: Voluntary Retirements from the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, DC: University Press of America.
Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, and Carroll McKibbin. 1993. Roster of United States Congressional Officeholders and Biographical Characteristics of Members of the United States Congress, 1789–1993: Merged Data. Computer file. 9th ICPSR ed. Ann Arbor, MI: Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, producer and distributor.
Jacobson, Gary C. 1992. The Politics of Congressional Elections. 3d ed. New York: HarperCollins.
Kahn, Gabriel. 1995. “Ultimate Term Limit: Member Deaths Down.” Roll Call (March 27).
Kiewiet, D. Roderick, and Zeng, Langche. 1993. “An Analysis of Congressional Career Decisions, 1947–1986.” American Political Science Review 87:928941.
Kincaid, Diane D. 1978. “Over His Dead Body: A Positive Perspective on Widows in the U.S. Congress.” Western Politics Quarterly 31:96104.
King, Gary. 1989. Unifying Political Methodology: The Likelihood Theory of Statistical Inference. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mann, Thomas E. 1978. Unsafe at Any Margin: Interpreting Congressional Elections. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
Miller, Kristie. 1992. Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880–1944. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Polsby, Nelson W. 1981. “The Washington Community 1960–1980.” In The New Congress, eds. Mann, Thomas E. and Ornstein, Norman J.. Washington: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 731.
Riddick, Floyd M., and Frumin, Alan S. 1992. Riddick's Senate Procedure: Precedents and Practices. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Schansberg, Eric D. 1994. “Moving Out of the House: An Analysis of Congressional Quits.” Economic Inquiry 32:445456.
U.S. Senate. 1995. Senators of the United States: A Historical Bibliography, 103rd Congress. S. Doc 103–34. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Winneker, Craig. 1996. “Heard on the Hill: Power Flowers.” Roll Call (May 27).

Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress1.

  • Forrest Maltzman (a1), Lee Sigelman (a1) and Sarah Binder (a2)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed