When Lame Ducks Attack

The “lame duck” session of Congress is the final session, held after the November elections.  It gets its name from the fact that many of the participating representatives have in fact been defeated.  It’s a curious reversal of the fundamental concept of representative government, in which House and Senate votes are cast after the people have explicitly withdrawn their support from the dying Congress.

The lame duck session is a relic of earlier times, in which it took months for new representatives to journey from their home states to Washington.  Originally, the new legislature convened in March, five months after the elections.  The 20th Amendment to the Constitution was supposed to end lame duck sessions… but, unfortunately, it was ratified in 1933, a few years too early to anticipate the power of commercial air travel and telecommunications, so it only pushed the start of the new Congress back to January 3rd. 

The result is a span of time, from the Monday after Thanksgiving through Christmas, or perhaps as late as New Years’ Day, in which a defeated Party has every reason to aggressively pursue its agenda.  In fact, as students of the current lame duck session are likely to conclude, there are strong reasons to deliberately delay Congressional business until those magical six weeks after the election. 

The Democrats knew they were heading into a tough set of midterm elections in 2010, which placed significant restraint on nervous representatives in threatened seats.  After their historic losses were tallied, all such restraint disappeared.  It was therefore logical to delay controversial bills until zombie legislators could vote without regard to electoral consequence… and, indeed, would be motivated by powerful incentives to push through “historic” legislation, which could become part of the defeated representative’s “legacy.”

The result is reminiscent of the old Star Trek episode where a planet of otherwise placid, sheeplike people goes absolutely nuts when the “Red Hour” strikes.  Democrats have been running through Congress screaming “Festival!” and trying to tear the wallet out of any hapless taxpayer they come across.  We’ve got a system that actually makes the astonishing dereliction of duty from the Reid and Pelosi Congress into an entirely rational strategy – why should they have tried to pass a big-spending, tax-raising budget during the normal session, with the Tea Party waiting to pounce on them during the midterm elections?  Their odds of getting what they wanted were much greater by putting budget commitments off until the final session, when every vote could be portrayed as an “emergency” conducted against a ticking clock, and much of the Democrat caucus would be entirely focused on loyalty to the Party, instead of representing the interests of voters who had already defeated them. 

The budget battle really isn’t over yet, although the Democrats are clearly hoping the approaching Christmas holiday will cause the public to lose interest in a story they believe reached its climax and denouement last week.  They’ve been trying to slip some last-ditch spending into the continuing resolution they agreed to use for government funding, until the new Congress can prepare a full budget next year.  The goal is to turn the continuing resolution into a “minbus” – a smaller version of the bloated omnibus spending bill that would have showered $1.27 trillion on the priorities of a defeated Party.  Meanwhile, the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the lame duck session apparently caused Republicans to cave on opposition to a horribly botched food-safety bill, which Harry Reid had been threatening to attach to the continuing budget resolution.  It remains to be seen if they’ll fold on the START treaty, while eight of them broke promises to pass nothing but tax and budget legislation in order to vote in favor of repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military.

The drumbeat to Do Something Right Now, because Time Is Running Out, is a powerful weapon in the hands of a defeated Party that has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by pushing hard for the most controversial items on its agenda.  The lame duck session is their best chance to staple their Christmas list to Santa’s forehead and begin rummaging through his toy sack for everything they want.  The one thing absolutely guaranteed by this “historic” lame duck Congress is even more such high-pressure, high-stakes gamesmanship in the future.  History will increasingly come to be written in the last six weeks of every Congress, as the defeated Party does its level best to reverse the elections they just lost.