Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat will be vacant until September. What happens in the meantime?
By Iris Samuels
In the weeks since the sudden death of U.S. Rep. Don Young, the state has announced a special election to replace the 49-year congressman, and 48 candidates are running to replace him. But what happens until a successor is elected and sworn in?
Alaska is one of seven states that have only one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (the others are Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Delaware). And with Young’s death, Alaska will have no voting member in the chamber for more than five months.
But that doesn’t mean the state’s congressional office will be empty. All of the 16 staff members who served Young remain employed by what is now known as the office of Alaska at-large. Even without an elected representative at the helm, they will continue carrying out some of the office’s responsibilities, now under the supervision of Clerk of the House Cheryl Johnson.
The clerk’s office oversees daily tasks that are typically under the House member’s authority, including signing off on personnel changes, official travel and purchases of office supplies.
“One of the basic functions of our congressional office and any congressional office is we’re a listening ear,” said Zack Brown, who was Young’s communications director and now serves in the same role for the at-large office. “People will call us to talk sometimes, and we’re continuing to answer the phones.”
The office will continue to handle constituent services. That includes addressing requests that relate to federal agencies, such as assistance getting passports, Social Security benefits and Veterans Affairs benefits. The office will also continue to help constituents book Capitol tours.
“So we’re pretty much doing everything we did before, minus the legislative component,” Brown said.
Without a representative in the seat, the office cannot take a position on bills or advocate on issues. The office cannot introduce or cosponsor bills, nor can it advocate for bills that Young introduced or co-sponsored before his death, though those bills can still be considered by the House.
“We cannot act on the authority of a member, since we don’t have a member,” said Alex Ortiz, who serves as the chief of staff for the office of Alaska at-large, and previously served as Young’s chief of staff.
The office has also taken on new responsibilities relating to Young’s death. Staff members are responsible for setting up memorial services, which have so far included services in Anchorage, Virginia and the U.S. Capitol. Ortiz said there may be additional services in the coming months.
Staffers are also working to sort through and archive 49 years’ worth of documents and personal effects that Young accumulated, a process that Ortiz described as “incredibly complicated.”
Eventually, Ortiz said, the intent is to ship Young’s records from D.C. to Alaska.
Alaska’s at-large seat is not the only one currently vacant. Rep. Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota died in February. Rep. Vela Filemon of Texas and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska resigned in March. But such vacancies can have a greater significance in states with only one U.S. House member. Texas, for example, has 36 congressional districts.
In the absence of a House member from Alaska, the state’s two senators can work to ensure Alaska’s interests are represented, Ortiz said.
“While they are not members of the House, they have extensive working relationships on the House side, just as the congressman did. And they are deeply invested in Alaska’s interests being protected in the House,” Ortiz said.
Other House members have also picked up legislation that Young worked on.
“There is a very conscious and active effort in the House to make sure that in the congressman’s absence, there’s not going to be an immediate fallout of important legislation,” Ortiz said.
Legislation proposed by Young that’s still in the works includes portions of the BOATS Act, or Bringing Oligarch Accountability Through Seizure Act. Young introduced that bill in early March, less than three weeks before his death. The bill would allow the U.S. to seize yachts and ships owned by Russian oligarchs in response to the war waged by Russia against Ukraine. Portions of it have been incorporated into the Coast Guard Authorization Act, now named after Young. That act passed the House late last month, less than two weeks after Young died. It is now under consideration by the Senate.
“Young’s impact legislatively is still happening, even though our office is not actively working on it and he’s not there,” Ortiz said.
The special election to replace Young is set for Aug. 16, with a primary set for June 11. Election results won’t be certified until Sept. 2.
Until then — “we continue to be open. The phones are on,” Brown said.