You may have heard that Congress suffered a loss this morning, as Maryland Representative Elijah E. Cummings passed away. Before beginning his lengthy public service career, Cummings graduated from Howard University with a degree in political science and later the University of Maryland with his J.D.
His lengthy terms of public service include 14 years in the Maryland House of Delegates. Among his notable accomplishments, he was the first African American in Maryland history to be named as Speaker Pro Tem, according to Congressman Cummings’s official biography. At the time of his death, the Congressman represented Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives. He served in that capacity since 1996, including his current assignment as the Chairman of the powerful Committee on Oversight and Reform.
You might wonder—how do we, as a country, honor our public servants when they pass on? (Note: this might be written slightly differently and described as an issue statement: whether the United States requires particular pageantry, ceremony, or memorial upon the death of a serving Congressman?)
The great news is that the United States Code (U.S.C.) offers some answers!
According to the 4 U.S.C. § 7(m), “The flag shall be flown at half-staff…on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.” This code section generally addresses the position and manner of display of the flag.
As we parse statutes, we understand that there are often definitions that are relevant. In this code section, there is a sub-section 4 U.S.C. § 7(m)(3) which offers the following definition: “the term ‘Member of Congress’ means a Senator, a Representative, a Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.” Clearly, Congressman Cummings is a member of Congress.
As a researcher, parsing the code section, I might also wonder what “half-staff” means. Is that defined anywhere?
Yes! It is! First, 4 U.S.C. § 7(m) explains clearly that a flag flown at half-staff should first be raised to the top of the flag pole and then lowered to half-staff. A bit more reading, and the researcher sees “half-staff” defined! Unsurprisingly, “’Half-staff’ means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff.” 4 U.S.C. § 7(m)(1).
There is a related Presidential Proclamation (No. 3044), issued by President Eisenhower on March 1, 1954 and amended on December 12, 1969 by President Nixon. The proclamation indicates that “the flag…shall be flown at half-staff on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels of the Federal Government in the metropolitan area of the District of Columbia on the day of death and on the following day upon the death of a United States…Representative…, and it shall also be flown at half-staff on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels of the Federal Government in the State, Congressional District, Territory, or Commonwealth of” the Representative “from the day of death until interment.”
President Trump issued his own Proclamation on the Death of Elijah E. Cummings, and it appears consistent with the requirements mandated in the United States Code. In fact, since 1994, there have been 26 presidential proclamations on the death of various individuals ranging from celebrity Bob Hope who was famous in part for entertaining troops; to United States Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White; to civil rights icons Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks.
In the interest of completeness, it may be worth checking for additional relevant statutes. (Remember, with no statutes there will not be relevant regulation.)
The index to the U.S.C. includes entries for the House of Representatives — Death. A sub-entry under Death is Monuments and Memorials, directing me to 2 U.S.C. § 4110 (formerly 2 U.S.C. § 51).
Upon reviewing the code section, the Sergeant at Arms of the House of Representatives has the duty of having a granite monument inscribed and erected for any deceased member of Congress who is actually interred in the Congressional Cemetery. The cost of the monument is paid from the contingent funds of the House of Representatives.