Policy Corner: Lame Ducks and Low Expectations

Along with watching Thanksgiving Day bowl games and parades, the sport of choice for many in the U.S. this time of year is politics. Pundits, analysts and insiders toss around the term “lame duck” as frequently as quarterbacks throw the football. Let’s look at the phrase and its implications as the 111th Congress lumbers toward the end of regulation play.

Lame ducks are lawmakers who were not re-elected in November, holding office only until their successors are sworn in January 3. Sessions of Congress held after mid-term elections in even-numbered years are known as lame duck sessions. Members concerned with vacating their offices may be tempted to put forth minimal effort. Lame duck sessions are considered so problematic that only 11 states allow them for their state legislatures.

Most concerning are lame duck sessions following elections in which one party loses control of one or both houses of Congress, as happened Nov. 2 when Republicans regained the House. One fear is that embittered members, facing involuntary retirement, will sabotage good legislation or turn bad bills into worse laws.

The Task at Hand: Budget
This year, as is often the case, the lame duck session is needed so Congress can work on required spending legislation. Having failed to pass appropriation bills before the federal fiscal year began Oct. 1, Congress has made do with a series of continuing resolutions (CR), allowing the government to operate in lieu of a budget by spending at the previous year’s levels. With the current CR set to expire Dec. 3, Congress is likely to pass another to carry through February or March of 2011. (Of course, another continuing resolution won’t be necessary should Congress pass all needed appropriations bills by Dec. 3.)

Other issues in play at the year’s end are the expiring Bush tax cuts and “tax extenders” legislation that would provide tax cuts for businesses, close certain loopholes and fund job creation. Lame duck sessions typically also see omnibus land bills and an assortment of non-controversial measures. Some observers predict a very short lame duck session highlighted by a continuing resolution.

When the 112th Congress is sworn in Jan. 3, new committee chairs will take office in the House, and – like a high-stakes game of dominoes – waves of consequences and implications will cascade through the Capitol. The power shift in Washington means many new faces, new roles for some veterans, and a bevy of new staff and advisors. ACSM policy staff, leadership and committee members will follow attentively as we craft strategies tuned to the new reality.

Editor’s note: For comprehensive, nonpartisan information on federal legislation and Congress, see www.thomas.gov.