As we approach the lame duck session of the 111th Congress, we can learn a lot from how previous Congresses dealt with this challenging task. In an earlier post we discussed lame duck sessions from 1940 – 1970. It’s important to look at more recent ones, particularly with the challenges that face the current Congress. The biggest issue facing the 111th is the so-called “fiscal cliff” or “driveway slope” that challenges members of the present Congress to address a previous deal, in which they delayed addressing the national debt. If nothing new is done, the Bush tax cuts will be rescinded for all, including those for the middle class, and there will be another two trillion dollar cut from expenditures, including half from the military budget.
Here’s what happened in some recent lame-duck sessions:
Going back thirty-eight years, the 1974 lame duck was unique because, over the previous two years, both the House and the Senate had been consumed with impeachment charges against President Richard M. Nixon. The most important measure was to confirm new President Gerald R. Ford’s nomination of Nelson Rockefeller to replace him as Vice-President. That went smoothly but only a few of the ten other proposals that Ford submitted were passed.
It was eight years, 1982, until the next lame duck session. President Ronald Reagan expressed concern that only three of 13 appropriation bills had been cleared for his signature. Congress promised to pass nine of the ten, but in reality only four passed for FY 1983. With serious concern about a recession, five bills were delayed to be dealt with the second year of the Congress in 1984. The lame duck session was particularly acrimonious, because the Senate held many filibusters. We now call this tactic gridlock.
In the 104thCongress, impeachment once again consumed Congress. This time the target was President Bill Clinton. While there were no charges for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, it was Clinton’s unwillingness to tell the truth and his proclivity to obstruct justice that caused Congress to have another lame duck session. Two charges against President Clinton passed by margins of 228-206 and 228-190. This lead to a Senate trial on the impeachment charges in the second session of the 104th Congress. Clinton was acquitted.
Expanding the power of the executive branch
The issue of unfunded appropriations once again came to the fore in the 107th Congress, 2nd Session in 2002. President George W. Bush had an agenda that included establishing the Department of Homeland Security. This plan was quite controversial, because it involved a major consolidation of separate bureaus, including the F.B.I., C.I.A, National Security Council, and FEMA. Finally, both the House and the Senate agreed to the proposal on November 22. The result was that Bush expanded the power of the executive branch, in the wake of the terrorist attack on the United States on 9-11-2001.
Be careful what you wish for
Two years later the 108th Congress, 2nd Session, had a lame duck session because the uncertainty of the 2004 election resulted in many appropriation bills left unfunded. Once Bush had won reelection, Congress agreed to most of his proposals. Congress also followed up its approval of the Department of Homeland Security with the establishment of a September 11 Commission that had the power to thoroughly investigate the causes of and the follow up to the 9-11 attack. This became a commission that was quite critical of the Bush administration, but the administration was able to block most of the recommendations.
2010, not very lame at all
The most recent and memorable lame duck session was two years ago, in 2010. The battle royale between President Obama and the Congress, in which Republicans had the power to filibuster in the Senate, resulted in a strange set of fiscal and monetary policies.
President Obama wanted the Bush taxes for the wealthy (net income over $250,000) to expire, but Republicans argued that these cuts were essential to stimulating the economy. Previous tax cuts for the wealthy amounted to mere 10%, from 39.6% to 36%. If the cuts for the wealthy were to be rescinded, the result would have been billions of dollars for the federal government. To address the middle class, the payroll tax was reduced by 2%. This move provided more disposable money all workers who were paying the payroll tax, but it also reduced revenue for the underfunded Social Security and Medicare programs. Some felt that President Obama conceded on this issue too easily, without a strong push from Republicans to do so.Congress passed a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” measure that banned openly gay and lesbian soldiers in the military. Now there would be no discrimination against gays and lesbians in the armed forces.
Congress also passed a bill to provide medical treatment and compensation to first responders of the September 11 attack. However there was a major omission in the bill because it did not cover most forms of cancer, one of the primary maladies suffered by the first responders.
Congress also passed an extension of the START (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) with Russia. Several Republican Senators joined with all Democrats to make this possible.
The second session of the 110th Congress will go down in history as refusing to finish appropriation bills submitted by President Obama and an unwillingness to reform the tax code, particularly with regard to the taxes levied on the wealthy.
Most of these issues have been delayed for two years until the upcoming lame duck session. House Speaker John Boehner has already indicated that he won’t compromise on restoring the income tax on the wealthy to their Clinton levels. It’s possible that, once again,even as the so-called “fiscal cliff” approaches, Congress will delay again. Whether it’s a lame duck or a regular session of Congress, this is a deplorable way for our primary legislative body to operate.