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The Not-So Lame Duck Congress
I will warn you now if you haven’t figured it out yet:
The months of November and December are going to be absolutely barbarous on Capitol Hill.
It may be April. But you don’t need a screen grab from the Hubble Space Telescope to spy this leviathan, lame duck asteroid hurtling through the Congressional cosmos. And if my calculations are correct, this lame duck is scheduled for deep impact on Capitol Hill sometime after November 6 – election day.
Enjoy it now, Hill denizens. Congress is out for two weeks with Easter and Passover approaching. Go for long, spring strolls on the National Mall. Lap up ballgames at Nationals Park in June. Enjoy a concert at Wolftrap in July. Soak up a long lunch at Sonoma or cut out early for a drink at Charlie Palmer’s.
Come November and December, you could very well be here until 10 pm every night.
Christmas parties? Forget it. You won’t make a one of them. Christmas cards? Better address those in August. And no one wants to hear moaning when you miss your flight out of Dulles when you discover the House and Senate are still meeting December 23. They’ve been in session on December 23 the past two years. And don’t forget the Senate was actually voting on health care reform on Christmas Eve in 2009.
This is the Super Bowl combined with the Daytona 500, blended with Game 7 of the NBA Finals and mixed with the Master’s – all rolled into one.
2012’s lame duck session promises to be the mother of lame duck sessions. A phantasmagoria of must-pass bills alongside a cavalcade of new lawmakers descending on the Capitol for the first time. Then there’s the sideshow of dozens of other lawmakers packing up after either losing or retiring. And it’s all topped with the potential for the House, Senate and White House to switch control.
“The lame duck story will be told in November,” augured Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA). “It may be an ugly process around here.”
For those not on Capitol Hill, here’s what a lame duck session is all about:
In his dictionary devoted to the American political lexicon, the late William Safire noted that The Nation first used the term “lame duck” when describing defeated politicians in 1910. The Nation characterized these figures “lame ducks in the sense that they have been winged, but hope to preen their plumage again.”
In other words, the Congressional calendar and the Constitutionally mandated start of the new Congress sometimes presented opportunities for defeated lawmakers to “preen their plumage” one a final time, even though they were lame ducks. Thus, was born the term “lame duck session.”
For more than a hundred years, the country paused from the November election until March of the new year to install the next president. Meantime, the new Congress was already seated in January and did little but cool its heels. That’s to say nothing of the “lame duck” president who was still in charge. FDR’s top adviser Rexford Tugwell described this interregnum as a “dangerous hiatus.” So the nation ratified the “lame-duck” amendment in 1933. It slid the president’s inauguration to January and diminished the potential period for a lame duck session.
But lame duck sessions continued.
Congress has conducted 18 lame duck sessions since 1935. Lame duck Congresses have tackled a litany of issues. They’ve increased Social Security benefits, approved a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), okayed the nominations of cabinet officials and reformed the nation’s intelligence system. The Senate convened a lame duck session in 1954 to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). The House met in lame duck fashion to impeach President Clinton in 1998.
There were no lame duck sessions from the mid-1980s through early 1990s. But lame duck meetings are now the norm. Congress hasn’t missed a lame duck session since the mid-1990s.
Voters throttled Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, seizing control of the House of Representatives. But not until January, 2011.Democrats took full advantage of their waning power, producing what historians argue was the most productive lame duck session in history. Democrats formally repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services. They passed a variety of tax cuts, most-notably the so-called “Bush” tax cuts and approved the payroll tax break. The Senate ratified the START treaty, reducing American and Russian arms. And both bodies of Congress negotiated the 9/11 health care law which granted assistance to first responders who fell ill after working at Ground Zero in New York.
Democrats overcame significant GOP objections to accomplish all of that. For better or worse. And in many respects, Republicans couldn’t wait for the lame duck session to end so the GOP could at least have control of the House.
“(Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid (D-NV) has eaten our lunch,” lamented Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during an appearance on FOX at the time.
Parents admonish kids not to put off their weekend homework until Sunday night. But that message never gets through to Capitol Hill. Especially in an election year when most lawmakers fret about taking tough votes. They’ll let the election settle things and then tackle nettlesome issues during the lame duck.
“The lame duck sessions are probably one of the best examples of Congress not getting its work done,” said freshman Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN). “It doesn’t take long to see how dysfunctional things are here.”
Here’s some of what Congress has to wrestle with this fall:
- A decision on whether or not to renew the payroll tax which was a battle royale last December and this past February.
- Determining what to do about the so-called “doc fix.” If Congress doesn’t act, physicians who see Medicare patients could endure a 25 percent cut in their federal reimbursement. That money encourages doctors to care for seniors on Medicare.
- Extending unemployment insurance.
- Solving the annual spending bills for fiscal year 2013. It’s likely the government will be running under a stopgap measure after September 30 if both bodies of Congress and the president haven’t reached a deal on all 12 measures which operate the federal government.
- Renewing the farm bill. Again, the nation could be functioning under an interim agriculture package if something isn’t approved later this year.
- The same could be said for transportation programs. Congress just passed a three-month extension of the transportation bill late last week.
- And as though all of that isn’t enough, there’s a parliamentary Frankenstein lurking in the laboratory: the defense sequester.
Congress made a deal with the devil last summer when it voted to raise the limit. It created the so-called “supercommittee” to find at least $1.2 trillion in cuts. Otherwise, Congress would immediately “sequester” or wall off funding for the Pentagon. It was thought that the defense sequester would entice the supercommittee to forge an agreement and spare the military. But the supercommittee failed. And if Congress doesn’t act later this year, the “sequester” automatically kicks in, siphoning billions upon billions of dollars away from the military.
“It’s not looking good right now,” said a Republican member of Congress about the defense cuts. “The disruptiveness of this is crazy.”
Regardless, all eyes are on the election. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) is already thinking about how busy the lame duck session could be.
“If we win, it’s to buy time to fix the mess we’re in,” Ryan said, noting Congress would have to temporarily extend some tax policies which sunset December 31. A brief extension would allow a possible GOP president and Congress to alter the policy map in 2013.
If voters re-elect President Obama, the lame duck session might not be quite as onerous. The slate of business will still be robust. Some in the GOP might try to lob a few political bombs at the president.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) posed an interesting idea last fall when he was still running for president. Perry suggested that Congress only meet “part-time.” Perry believed a part-time Congress could save money and get lawmakers back home more frequently.
Perhaps Perry was onto something. One GOP lawmaker quipped a few weeks ago that Congress should “recess for 22 months” and then come to Washington for all of the heavy lifting in the final two months of each Congress. After all, lame duck Congresses aren’t so lame any more.
And this fall’s lame duck session promises to be a doozy.