Should We Fear A Lame-Duck Congress ?

Will Democrats use a lame-duck session of Congress to pass legislation they can't get through otherwise ? They might try, but I doubt they'll succeed.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, John Fund speculates that Congressional Democrats are planning on a post-election lame duck session of Congress to push through bills that they are reluctant to deal with before the mid-term elections:

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.

At the very least, the fact that major Democrats are talking about this openly would seem to be a sign that they are resigned to the fact that the November elections will not go well for them. Even if they don’t lose control of one, or both, House of Congress, it’s fairly obvious at this point that their majorities will be significantly reduced, and their ability to get controversial legislation through Congress will be significantly reduced. Indeed it could be, as Ed Driscoll wonders, that we are witnessing the high watermark of the Obama agenda.

How realistic is it, though, that the Democrats could push through legislation like Cap-and-Trade, immigration reform, or “card check” in a lame duck session that lasts from November until sometime before Christmas ?

In my opinion, not likely at all.

For one thing, it’s fairly clear that the votes aren’t there for at least some of these agenda items. Card check, for example, has been dead for more than a year because it could have survived a cloture vote even before Scott Brown won the race for Ted Kennedy’s seat in January. There’s no reason at all to believe that situation would change between now and November.

For another, Fund’s nightmare scenario seems to completely forget that the United States Senate exists and that the Republican Party has enough votes to prevent any measure from getting to a floor vote if it stays united. Assuming big Republican success on November 2nd, it seems hard to believe that unity would crumble in the face of Democratic attempts to pass legislation that would clearly not make it through the 112th Congress when it convenes in January.

If there is a lame duck session I suspect that it will be dealing with relatively non-controversial matters like the new START Treaty rather than some legislative neutron bomb.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Yeah, this only works if you think lame duck Republicans are secretly in favor of these programs but afraid to vote for them because of political consequences. Otherwise, it’s lame-brained.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Fund? An objective source?

  3. An Interested Party says:

    John Fund? Was Karl Rove or Yosemite Sam unavailable for comment…

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    No party, you and joe were busy doing whatever creatures of your ilk do. John Fund is far more knowledgable and credible than anyone you listen to. Take that to the bank, if you can catch the little piggy. Grow up.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    Thanks, but I usually don’t take advice from cranks and conspiracy nuts…

  6. Jay Dubbs says:

    But this is my favorite part of the article:

    “It’s been almost 30 years since anything remotely contentious was handled in a lame-duck session”

    Except you know for that impeaching the President thing. (Of course, Fund doesn’t think that is contentious — but passing a START treaty that is outrageous.)

  7. Elmer Fudd says:

    You know, these wame ducks have to go home after the wame duck Congress.

    Duck season, baby…