Lame-duck Congress isn’t all that it’s quacked up to be
Congress is back, although we can’t quite say that we missed our “favorite” lawmakers. Now that the leaves are turning brown and there’s pumpkin spiced-everything all-around, our elected officials are back to their usual, partisan bickering. Senate Republicans returned from recess with a $500 billion “skinny” coronavirus relief bill, but that measure got promptly voted down for not churning enough red ink.
At the very least, there seems to be a (tentative) bipartisan understanding that core agency funding (via continued resolution) and stimulus spending should be kept separate from one another. But all restraint may go out the window once lawmakers become lame ducks after the 2020 election and spend freely without an iota of democratic accountability. By approving spending through the start of 2021, Congress can stop these outvoted and retiring lawmakers from passing bad policy and dragging taxpayers even deeper into debt. And, a CR that runs into 2021 means that Congress won’t try to pass a bloated spending bill right before the holidays.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, America had a significant debt problem. And after a 6-month, $4 trillion spending binge, America owes nearly $27 trillion to her creditors. That astronomical sum amounts to more than $200,000 for every American household. If lawmakers continue to embrace short-term spending “solutions,” this problem may get significantly worse by the end of the year.
After every midterm election, lawmakers inevitably get voted out or decide that it’s time to leave the hallowed profession for good. Devoid of any sort of accountability, these lame-duck Congresses embrace all sorts of spending shenanigans. After the midterm elections concluded in 2010, lawmakers wasted no time putting together a $1.2 trillion spending bill laden with more than 6,000 earmarks totaling $8 billion. An outraged Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., lamented, “The American people said just 42 days ago, ‘Enough!’ ... Are we tone deaf? Are we stricken with amnesia?” And with shameless inclusions such as $349,000 for swine waste management in North Carolina, the late, great senator may have been onto something.
Fast forward two years to 2012 when the next lame-duck Congress passed the “American Taxpayer Relief Act” filled with dubious carve outs such as an “extension of tax-exempt financing for New York Liberty Zone” and the “modification and extension of American Samoa economic development credit.” Thanks to the last-minute inclusion of these bizarre provisions, the “compromise” legislation went from 30 pages to 157 pages of goodies for special interests.
In recent years, lame-duck Congresses have become even more unwieldy and hostile to the interests of the American people. The most recent lame-duck session featured a 34-day government shutdown (the longest in U.S. history), which caused significant disruptions to agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Sure, government shutdowns happen outside of lame-duck periods as well, but lawmakers know full well that shutdowns do not make for good politics and removing democratic accountability certainly doesn’t help matters.
According to research from Mercatus Center scholars Christopher Koopman, Matthew Mitchell and Emily Hamilton, House members skip more than 3 percent more votes during “very lame duck” sessions (following a party-switching election), even controlling for the time of year. There’s just not as much incentive to show up and do critical work absent the possibility of voter backlash.
It’s tempting to ask why lame-duck sessions even exist in the first place. Unfortunately, this anti-democratic period of legislating has to exist due to the demands of post-election Congressional staff organizing. Incoming lawmakers need time to get their houses in order before taking their position in the House (and Senate). If the current Congress was dismissed during this critical transition period, the executive branch would have to govern in their stead. And this would of course be unacceptable due to our democratic system’s wise emphasis on the separation of powers.
Congress cannot make lame-duck sessions go away. But it can preemptively act to limit the power of lame ducks by passing agency funding that will last until the new Congress takes power. Americans needn’t place their faith in voted-out lawmakers keen on maxing out the federal credit card.
Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance