Recently the Capitol Health Record blog has provided you with background information on temporary appointments, nominations, and confirmations. But what happens if a Member of Congress receives a federal appointment? How are Congressional seats filled in the cases of nominations to other office, resignations, or deaths?

The short answer is that it depends on the state and when the nomination, resignation, or death occurs. The Constitution leaves the scheduling of special elections and nomination process up to the states.

The Constitution requires that all House vacancies be filled by special election. If the House seat is vacated late in the Congressional term, a state may leave the seat open until the next general election. Depending on the state, there may be a special election to fill the remainder of the term (from Election Day until the conclusion of the Congress) and a regular election to fill the seat for the next Congress.

  • For example, Thad McCotter (MI-11) resigned from his House seat on July 6, 2012. The seat remained vacant until Election Day when David Curson was elected to fill the seat for the remainder of the 112th Congress (November 13, 2012-January 3, 2013). In that same election, Kerry Bentivolio was elected to represent Michigan’s 11th district in the 113th Congress.
  • Also in the November 2012 election, Thomas Massie (KY-4) was elected to serve in the House following Representative Geoff Davis’ resignation. Representative Massie won both the special election and the general election, taking office in November for the remainder of the 112th Congress and being sworn in again for the 113th Congress.

Senate positions are also filled through special elections, although most Senate vacancies are filled by temporary appointments in the interim. These temporary appointments are made by the state’s governor. How long between the appointment and the special election varies by state. Additionally, in the Senate, winners of special elections typically serve the remainder of the six-year term of the preceding Senator, although some may only serve until the next national election.

There have already been a number of changes in the 113th Senate, which demonstrate the variation among states.

  • Senators Brian Schatz (HI) and Tim Scott (SC) were nominated to fill the seats vacated by Senator Daniel Inouye’s death and Senator Jim DeMint’s resignation, respectively. Both Senators Schatz and Scott will serve until November 2014, when a special election will be held to elect someone to serve out the remainder of the term ending in January 2017.
  • Senator John Kerry (MA) was nominated and confirmed to serve as Secretary of State beginning on February 1, 2013. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick nominated William “Mo” Cowan to serve until June 25, 2013, when a special election will be held. The winner of the special election will serve until January 2015.
  • Earlier today, it was announced that Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ) passed away. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will now make a temporary appoint to fill the vacancy. There is currently some debate as to whether the nominee will compete in a special election this upcoming November or fill the remainder of Senator Lautenberg’s term, until the November 2014 election.

For additional information and more details about specific state procedures, please see the Congressional Research Service report on “House and Senate Vacancies: How Are They Filled?