OPINION: Rep. Giffords should resign her seat

Published: Jun. 24, 2011 at 9:13 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 28, 2018 at 5:25 PM MST
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Editor's note: Paul Sracic is chair of the Department of Political Science and Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center at Youngstown State University in Ohio. His most recent book is "San Antonio v. Rodriguez and the Pursuit of Equal Education" (University Press of Kansas). He frequently comments on U.S. and Midwestern politics.

(CNN) - In the months since the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, reports about her condition have been sparse. We have learned of a follow-up surgery to repair her skull and that she was recently released from a rehabilitation hospital.

Also released were a set of photos. We still, however, do not know the extent of her injuries. Out of respect for the privacy of the family, the media has not delved too deeply into the more common and troubling aftereffects of a serious trauma to the brain.

Should the media and the public be so reluctant to demand more information? The Arizona Democrat is not just a private citizen; she is a sitting member of Congress. Do Giffords' responsibilities demand a more searching inquiry into her health? No one is asking this question because it seems moot.

In reality, the congresswoman is not carrying out any of these responsibilities.

Even from the limited information that has been made available, we know that for the near term Giffords cannot carry out her committee assignments, debate on the floor of the House, and, most importantly cast a vote. The result is that for all intents and purposes, the gunman's bullet that so severely injured Giffords also silenced the people of Arizona's 8th Congressional District.

Isn't the obvious solution for her to resign and allow Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to call a special election to fill her seat? I know that this sounds cruel and heartless. After all, not only is Gabrielle Giffords not responsible for what happened to her, but in a sense she sacrificed herself, having been attacked while performing the quintessential democratic act of meeting with her constituents.

The problem is that we so often think of resignation as a sort of punishment for bad behavior. And it seems a perversion to use the names Gabrielle Gifford and Anthony Weiner, who resigned last week in a sex scandal, in the same sentence, much less to dole out to them a common punishment.

But to view resignation as only appropriate in the aftermath of misdeeds shows a misunderstanding of the what it means to be a member of Congress.

Yes, to be an elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives is an honor. To be forced or coerced to give up an honor is a form of punishment.

Being a member of Congress, however, is also a job. More than that, it is a job that lies at the heart of our democracy. Although we all wish Giffords a swift and full recovery, we also wish the nearly 650,000 residents of her district to be represented in Congress. While her staff may still be in place, being assisted no doubt by other members of Congress, the staff cannot vote.

I write from experience. In the summer of 2002, the congressman who represented my Ohio district, Jim Traficant, was expelled from Congress.

Then-Gov. Robert Taft, in an act that would later be declared unconstitutional by a federal court, decided not to call for a special election. Many reasons were cited, the most important being cost and the fact that the congressional session was nearly over.

The result was that those of us in Ohio's 17th Congressional District were, from July 24 of 2002 until the new Congress convened over five months later, in much the same condition as citizens in Arizona's 8th Congressional District. On the floor of the House of Representatives, we did not count.

Did anything of importance happen during that time?

Well, none of the appropriation bills for fiscal 2003 had yet passed. More significantly, on October 16, 2002, the House voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq.

Would my congressman's vote have made a difference in any of these votes? Probably not, but that's not the point. Democracy is about participation, not results.

This indeed is what Gabrielle Giffords would be signifying should she decide to resign. She would, after all, be replaced by someone chosen by the very voters that she risked her life to hear from on that terrible day in January.

I am also fairly confident that there are at least a few qualified candidates who the congresswoman herself might approve to serve in her place. I hear, for example, that there is an astronaut who might be looking for work this fall.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Sracic.