Democratic House members are so worried about the fall elections they’re leaving Washington on July 30, a full week earlier than normal—and they won’t return until mid-September. Members gulped when National Journal’s Charlie Cook, the Beltway’s leading political handicapper, predicted last month “the House is gone,” meaning a GOP takeover. He thinks Democrats will hold the Senate, but with a significantly reduced majority.
The rush to recess gives Democrats little time to pass any major laws. That’s why there have been signs in recent weeks that party leaders are planning an ambitious, lame-duck session to muscle through bills in December they don’t want to defend before November. Retiring or defeated members of Congress would then be able to vote for sweeping legislation without any fear of voter retaliation.
“I’ve got lots of things I want to do” in a lame duck, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W. Va.) told reporters in mid June. North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, wants a lame-duck session to act on the recommendations of President Obama’s deficit commission, which is due to report on Dec. 1. “It could be a huge deal,” he told Roll Call last month. “We could get the country on a sound long-term fiscal path.” By which he undoubtedly means new taxes in exchange for extending some, but not all, of the Bush-era tax reductions that will expire at the end of the year.
In the House, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters last month that for bills like “card check”—the measure to curb secret-ballot union elections—”the lame duck would be the last chance, quite honestly, for the foreseeable future.”
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate committee overseeing labor issues, told the Bill Press radio show in June that “to those who think [card check] is dead, I say think again.” He told Mr. Press “we’re still trying to maneuver” a way to pass some parts of the bill before the next Congress is sworn in.
Other lame-duck possibilities? Senate ratification of the New Start nuclear treaty, a federally mandated universal voter registration system to override state laws, and a budget resolution to lock in increased agency spending.
Then there is pork. A Senate aide told me that “some of the biggest porkers on both sides of the aisle are leaving office this year, and a lame-duck session would be their last hurrah for spending.” Likely suspects include key members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Congress’s “favor factory,” such as Pennsylvania Democrat Arlen Specter and Utah Republican Bob Bennett.
Conservative groups such as FreedomWorks are alarmed at the potential damage, and they are demanding that everyone in Congress pledge not to take up substantive legislation in a post-election session. “Members of Congress are supposed to represent their constituents, not override them like sore losers in a lame-duck session,” Rep. Tom Price, head of the Republican Study Committee, told me.
It’s been almost 30 years since anything remotely contentious was handled in a lame-duck session, but that doesn’t faze Democrats who have jammed through ObamaCare and are determined to bring the financial system under greater federal control.
Mike Allen of Politico.com reports one reason President Obama failed to mention climate change legislation during his recent, Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil spill was that he wants to pass a modest energy bill this summer, then add carbon taxes or regulations in a conference committee with the House, most likely during a lame-duck session. The result would be a climate bill vastly more ambitious, and costly for American consumers and taxpayers, than moderate “Blue Dogs” in the House would support on the campaign trail. “We have a lot of wiggle room in conference,” a House Democratic aide told the trade publication Environment & Energy Daily last month.
Many Democrats insist there will be no dramatic lame-duck agenda. But a few months ago they also insisted the extraordinary maneuvers used to pass health care wouldn’t be used. Desperate times may be seen as calling for desperate measures, and this November the election results may well make Democrats desperate.
Mr. Fund is a columnist for WSJ.com.