The Lame Duck Will Be Busy

[ Posted Monday, September 19th, 2022 – 14:34 UTC ]

The lame-duck Congress, which will take place from just after the midterm election to the end of the calendar year, is shaping up to be a rather busy one. This isn't too unusual, since punting things to the lame-duck period is always a tempting option for politicians worried about their re-election. But this year's lame duck might be more significant than most, because of what is being teed up for it. They'll only have two months to act on all of it, minus all the breaks they'll take for the November and December holidays. And it looks like they'll have a lot to get done.

Congress has over a month until the November election, but they are already itching to just shut things down and get out on the campaign trail for all of October. To do so they have one crucial bill to pass, to get some sort of budget in place for the start of the fiscal budgetary year (at the beginning of October). Theoretically, a whole budget should be in place before the federal fiscal year starts, but that almost never happens in the real world. What will most likely happen is some sort of "continuing resolution" which will kick the can a few months down the road, either all the way into next year or (more likely) into the lame-duck session.

What goes in this short-term budget deal is anyone's guess, at the moment. Because it is a "must-pass" bill, there will be attempts to graft on lots of other issues to it. Disaster aid is almost certain to be included (for hurricanes, flooding, fires, and whatever else happens before they pass the bill). COVID emergency money has been requested by the White House, but it remains to be seen how much appetite there still is in Congress for such funding. So far, the pandemic has morphed into an epidemic and no new strain of the virus has emerged to cause a new spike in cases. This could all change at any time over the winter, of course. The question is how well we'll be prepared for it if it does, really.

Money to fund the continuing war in Ukraine will likely be a topic for discussion. This might be an easier lift after the recent battlefield successes the Ukrainians have achieved, so at least some war funding will likely make it into the final package. Senator Joe Manchin's energy reform bill (to ease the process of getting permits for big projects like pipelines) is being fiercely fought over already -- some Democrats don't want it attached to the budget bill at all, but Manchin is adamant about pushing it, so we'll have to see if it makes it in or not.

Out of all this fracas, eventually a compromise bill will appear. Some things may not make it in, which means they will be punted to the lame duck. A real budget will also be on the lame-duck agenda, unless the temporary measure punts that all the way to 2023. Normally, those would be enough to keep any lame-duck Congress busy, but there are already a number of other things waiting in the wings.

Chuck Schumer had to reluctantly move the vote on a marriage equality bill to the lame duck, at the request of the sponsors of the bill. They are still optimistic they can get the necessary 10 Republican votes to pass the bill, but felt it would have been politically impossible for this to happen before the midterm election. If this proves to be correct, it will be a historic measure that will codify gay and interracial marriage into federal law. If the votes aren't there, then Schumer is going to look like he got played by the Republicans, by allowing them to dodge a politically-embarrassing vote right before an election.

Congress has yet to fix any of the problems in how presidential elections are carried out (which Donald Trump tried to exploit), and there are currently competing measures in the House and Senate to tackle the problems, so there will have to be further work done to produce a final bill. At the heart of this effort is reforming a law passed after the Civil War, the Electoral Count Act, which was so badly written and is so vague in some places as to be meaningless. These vague parts are precisely the parts Trump tried to exploit, so it is rather critical to plug these loopholes and shore the whole process up before another presidential election happens.

Of course, unmentioned in all of this so far is that when we get to the lame-duck Congress, we will all know who won the midterm elections. We'll know what the next House and Senate will look like. If the Democrats pull off a miracle, they'll still be in charge of both chambers. In this scenario, it is a lot less important to get all these things through by the end of the year, because they'll still have another two years to fix things. But if (as expected) the Republicans take at least the House, then this will be the last chance Democrats get to enact structural reforms before the next president is sworn into office (at the earliest).

If Democrats have lost at least one chamber of Congress, there is one big issue that they could fix on their way out. Jonathan Bernstein made this case in Bloomberg a few weeks ago:

It's time: Congressional Democrats need to get the ball rolling on ending the risk of defaulting on the nation's debt. If they don't tackle this before the current term ends, we run the risk that a Republican House majority will be irresponsible enough to allow a default to happen. That's why the Democrats should seize the opportunity during the lame-duck period after the Nov. 8 midterms to eliminate the borrowing cap entirely.

The "debt ceiling" is truly a ridiculous concept. There's no real need for it. It essentially forces Congress to vote twice to spend the same money -- first to appropriate it, and then to allow it to be spent. It is not only counterproductive, it has become a partisan weapon to wield. Republicans routinely attempt to take the debt ceiling hostage and threaten to force the United States to default on its debt, all to score political points. Such a thing was always rather dangerous, but until the last decade or so defaulting on our debt was never taken all that seriously.

That was then, this is now. Ever since the Tea Party era, Republicans have become more and more radicalized and more and more willing to destroy anything just to score political points against the other party. Can anyone really see a MAGA-infused House spontaneously deciding to do the right thing?

Democrats do have the power to just eliminate this hostage-taking entirely and permanently, by passing a bill which just abolishes the concept of a debt ceiling. All they'd have to do is state that whenever Congress approves spending money, it also automatically approves any debt which is necessary to spend that amount of money. The debt ceiling would thus turn into a pumpkin and cease to exist. Which they can and should do during the lame-duck session, if Republicans are poised to take over either chamber of Congress.

There are plenty of other good ideas which have been floating around for the past two years which would also be worthy of passing. A ban on individual stock trades by any sitting member of Congress is an excellent example, but certainly not the only one.

As mentioned, the level of urgency to pass any or all of this will depend in a major way on the outcome of the election. If Democrats do somehow manage to retain control of both chambers of Congress, then there will be very little urgency to act on some of these items. But a much more likely scenario is them losing the House to the GOP and knowing that this is the last bite at the apple they will get for at least two more years. Republicans have sworn that they are going to spend that entire time doing nothing but trying to tear down President Joe Biden as well as the multitude of perceived enemies of their Dear Leader. They're not going to be very interested or motivated to do anything else, even the bare minimum which is necessary to keep the government running. In that case, the lame-duck session is going to be frantic, because it will be absolutely crucial to enact all these reforms before Nancy Pelosi loses her gavel. Which would put an awful lot on their plate to achieve in the last two months of this year.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “The Lame Duck Will Be Busy”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    My money is on Shumer got played by the Repugs.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I just have one question, assuming that the Donald won't be able to resist running again for president, what Democrat to y'all think will be able to beat Trump?

    Asking for a friend. :-)

  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    do y'all, I meant to tap out ... :)

    It's almost a quarter to one and I'm a little bit drunk ...

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ... by the way, I've got some weed that I don't relish smokin' so is anyone interested ... just give me your address ... :)

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm so bad ... sorry.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'll give it away for free ...

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Well, not to worry, everyone ... if Trump is the GOP nominee, then I'm pretty sure Biden will run for re-election. He has given his entire life to public service so what would another four years be, Hunter Biden laptop and the rest be damned!

  8. [8] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    K, I'll take the weed, please and thank you. I'm curious to experience #CanuckCannabis, so I'm pulling a Michale and self doxxing. I expect a little fan mail, Weigantia.;)

    POB 8336
    Green Valley Lake CA 92341

    In answer to your question about what Democrat can beat Trump?

    Um -- whoops -- er, how about that guy who beat him by 7 million votes in 2020? I think Joe could improve on those numbers a second time around, no?

  9. [9] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    No, it will probably be even closer.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Yes, I think Biden would improve on those 2020 numbers by more than Trump would. :)

    As for that package in the mail ... would either of us get into any sort of trouble?

    You can ask Chris for my email addy!

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