Lame-Duck Congress: Hype Aside, No Harm Will Be Done

By John Sununu | SEPTEMBER 29, 2014

I’VE NEVER been a great fan of “Walking Dead,” the popular zombie serial. Several friends have encouraged me to give it a chance, but after sitting through a half-dozen lame-duck congressional sessions, it feels like something I’ve seen before. Like the show, the post-election sessions tend to be slow moving and repetitious. Unlike the show, there’s lots of small talk and not much zombie killing.

It’s a strange environment, to be sure. Coming back just a week after the Nov. 2 elections, the participants will be current office holders, not those newly elected. Many members will have lost their seats; some will have had “near death” experiences. Despite that, the atmosphere on the floor tends to be very collegial. Campaigns are a travail regardless of party affiliation, a fact appreciated by anyone who has ever put their name on a ballot. Many of those going home for the last time are longtime colleagues and friends.

For the House and Senate leadership, discussion about the post-election agenda began as soon as Congress left town for the final six weeks on the campaign trail. Planning gives the staff something to do. It also allows members to reassure constituents back home that there’s still time to get things done before the end of the year. Of course, that often sparks an uncomfortable conversation about why so little was accomplished during the first nine months of the session.

Not everyone views the work at hand in the same light. Senator Ted Cruz seems to view the prospect of lame-duck legislation as the coming of Armageddon. His dramatic warning that the session could be used to enact tax increases and “pass amnesty” makes for good talk radio, but little else. Republicans control the House, and the Senate requires 60 votes to pass anything through to the president. More to the point, the Senate is dysfunctional as it is. Any attempt at mischief will quickly run into the hard wall of reality.

Regardless of the rhetoric, nothing will happen on major initiatives like tax reform or immigration. There’s simply not enough time, energy, or inclination — on either side of the aisle. These issues require a fresh Congress, hours of committee work, and days of floor time to succeed. Even a resolution endorsing the recent air strikes against ISIS strongholds — something with strong bipartisan support — will be held for the new Congress.

History shows that the typical work product of lame ducks falls neatly into two categories: the necessary and the noncontroversial. Atop the “necessary” list sits that which Congress does most easily: spending. At the moment, most of the federal government is operating under the autopilot of a “continuing resolution.” It’s quite possible that the lame-duck session simply extends these current spending levels through next year. The more likely outcome, however, will be an “omnibus” spending bill, combining all the annual spending measures that were never addressed during the year — the legislative equivalent of unfinished homework.

Lame-duck or not, big spending bills almost always contain their share of pork, and subterfuge, but with a budget agreement in place, fixed caps on total spending will limit the damage to taxpayer pocketbooks. Both sides also have incentives to get the work done as cleanly as possible. Democrats are all but certain to lose Senate seats; better to act now from a position of strength. And with the prospect of improved numbers in both chambers, Republicans will want to start 2015 on clean footing rather than spending February trying to deal with last year’s leftovers.

The intense gridlock of the past year suggests that “noncontroversial” measures would be few and far between, but there are a couple to be found. Every two years, Congress extends a collection of tax measures ranging from research tax credits to renewable fuel subsidies. The “extenders” package moves more easily when no one is fighting over political credit for the popular provisions. Other typically bipartisan bills like defense reauthorization, and terrorism risk insurance move more easily through the Capitol with the emotions of campaign season removed from the equation.

In the end, it’s not much of a list; it rarely is. The days of a lame-duck president or Congress slipping things past an unwary public are long gone. Like the survivors in “Walking Dead,” the weary who gather at the Capitol this November will be tired, anxious, and looking for a safe haven in which to spend the holidays. That’s a reprieve the public will deserve even more.

John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.

Originally published in the Boston Globe