The Looming Danger Of The Lame Duck

The buzz around Capitol Hill these days is whether the House will pass a budget, and if Congress will be able to pass individual spending measures, known as appropriations bills. These discussions are important, but as spring announces its arrival, it is already time to think about the fall. That is because Republican congressional leadership may be using the sunlight of springtime to plan for moving bad spending bills in the darkness of winter. For after Election Day in November, Congress will be able to hold a lame duck session. That is a looming danger for our republic.

The origins of the phrase lame duck can be traced back to 1863. It refers to incumbent members of the House and Senate after a House or Senate election who remain in office until the end of that session of Congress. If either chamber meets after the election, these lawmakers are in a low accountability situation. They have either been defeated and are headed home, or have been re-elected and won’t face the voters again for some time. In a lame duck session, the House and the Senate, if they have the will, can act with virtual impunity. They can act quickly, with truncated debate, and little public input.

Since 1940, Congress has held 20 lame duck sessions, some of which were pro forma, lasting only a short time with no major legislative action. Many more were substantive sessions of Congress, where legislators approved rent control extensions, an environmental measure, housing legislation, trade reform legislation, a pay raise for House members, articles of impeachment in the House against President Clinton, establishing a new cabinet-level department (the Department of Homeland Security), trade deals, a House-passed auto industry bailout, a food safety bill, a defense bill, an intelligence bill, and appropriations.

Congress is currently deadlocked on many important issues, which is as the Founders intended. They created an elegant system of checks and balances to make it difficult for the federal government to take action on the very narrow range of responsibilities assigned to it by the Constitution. Congress also has a very limited supply of courage available to make the choices necessary to restore our country’s fiscal health, substantially roll back federal encroachment on issues the Constitution reserves to the states, and cut spending. Thus, conditions are ripe for a lame duck session where Congress could take action on spending bills that will promote a big government agenda at what lawmakers will perceive to be at minimal or no political cost to congressional leadership.